The German, a nun and a Prickly Pig

imageThe sensation of wheels spinning in the mud can be pretty cool, especially if the vehicle is moving and preferably sideways. The same sensation when the vehicle is stationary is not so cool but no big problem. But, when we experienced wheel spin in our 4WD, complete with big tires especially designed for mud driving, it proved to be more a saga than a problem. And what’s more, to compound our problem we were on a very narrow & very remote track in the Amazon jungle during an impressive tropical deluge. We were bogged with no winch & self-recovery likely the only way out, this is how Global Inc Safari found themselves on this dark and particularly wet Amazonian evening. With no other option available Russ, armed with his headlamp, raincoat and jungle jandals (havianas) followed the track into a complete darkness that is the jungle at night.

nightRuss walked slowly, allowed his night vision to develop as he tracked the washed out wheel ruts  in the dark. At times precious ambient light managed to filter through holes in the canopy where trees had been felled during the construction of the track. Having resign to a potentially long walk for help Russ came to a fork in the track, not more than a kilometer from where he had left Anna & Troy. Closing one eye he switched on the headlamp saw the main track continued straight ahead and the other appeared to be a driveway of sorts, after a short one eyed, wonky walk up the driveway he was pleasantly surprised to see a house up a small rise but there were no lights and nobody appeared to be home, bugger. Russ continued on the main track for another 600 odd meters and saw a very dim light glowing through the growth. The light disappeared when he looked at it directly, but in peripheral vision it was as bright as a search light.

digginThe light disappeared and reappeared as the track snaked toward potential help. The downpour was slowly abating and Russ could make out an outline of a porch and the source of the light, but under the canopy it might as well have been raining as every faint breeze brought a new drenching from above. Russ knocked on the door and was greeted by an older Bolivian woman who spoke perfect English, this has to be the English Bird watchers residence, and was he invited in. After a brief introduction Russ explained what had happened and if help could be forthcoming. The Brit gave an emphatic “no, not a chance of any kind help from me sunshine, go and see the German in the other house” but he did impart some advice to Russ “never drive off the track, that would be disastrous, I had a sign at the main gate stating that but it fell down and I never repaired it”, yeah, thanks for nothing wanker.  With nothing else to say Russ bid the couple good evening, apologised for the intrusion and slowly walked back to the other house in the vain hope that somebody was home. During the walk back Russ formed a recovery plan and mentally prepared himself for no sleep and a lot of digging, more so if the rain kept up.

imageThe good news was that the German was home, he welcomed Russ in and he had a guest that spoke excellent English. The bad news is that he had a 2WD car, bald tires and no winch. We cannot remember his name so for the sake of the yarn we will call him Hans. After a brief Spanglish/ English/ German explanation of what had happened Hans said he would help us recover troy from the clutches of the jungle, but, after his dinner. Russ trudged back to Anna and prepared the recovery strap for an attempt at forward recovery. The back of Hans’s car appeared a half an hour later, tail lights bright in the darkness as he reversed down the track and stopped at the end of the recovery strap. After brief introductions and a detailed instruction as to what Russ wanted to happen the strap was attached to Hans’s vehicle and we were ready to go. Russ beeped once and Han’s gunned his car up the track taking up the slack in the strap as he went.

imageThe theory is the strap acts as a super heavy duty elastic band and will stretch some 20-30% in length all the while gaining elastic potential energy as it reaches a maximum stretched length, without delving into basic physics the stuck vehicle should slingshot out of trouble with the aid of the forward dynamic energy of the recovery vehicle… in theory. In practice Hans’s car decelerated from 35-0 km/h in 10mm and nearly pulled the arse out of his car. Also, in hindsight, I should have told him to wear his seat belt and brace for the strap take up and impact. Han’s, the poor bugger, staggered from his vehicle dazed, bleeding from the brow and cursing colorfully in German. Russ didn’t really think it was going to work but we’d never of known unless we tried it. Plan ‘B’ involved a bigger 4WD vehicle, brought in from the rear, with lots of friendly neighboring Bolivian blokes, axes, spades, shovels, hand winches, pulley’s , steel cables, ropes, torches, food and drink, discussion & planning, talking, laughter, swearing, frustration, resignation and finally defeat.

imageThe clock on the dash read 12:38 AM and the Bolivians finally called it a night. Not so Hans, his one remaining Bolivian friend and Russ. After another discussion Plan ‘C’ was hatched and Han’s drove back up the track for more timber planks. After much digging, planning and ramping Han’s and Russ, inch by precarious inch, managed to drive troy out of the Mud and up onto the track proper, the clock read 01:48 AM and we were mobile again some 10 hours after sliding off the track and into a silty side drain, axle deep. We drove up to Hans’s house and parked to one side of the track and set up camp. Hans offered us both the use of his shower and after washing the mud and grime away we crawled into bed for a well-deserved sleep. The next morning we thanked Hans for his help and bid everyone goodbye, but not the Pom and Russ slingshot a few rocks onto his roof as a parting gesture.

imageWe very cautiously backtracked to the main road, being very careful not to deviate, even remotely, from the track. Muted morning daylight lit the jungle track and we saw how easily a small vehicle could stray and slide into the swampy washouts that ran on either side of the track. Previously unseen plank bridges, barely wide enough for us to drive on, spanned small deep creeks of mud and silt. Somehow we had managed to get it right with exception to the final crossing which took 10 hours to cross. We were certainly one, if not the largest, vehicle to ever drive on the track.

imageOnce we gained the main gate we had to bash our way back through the flooded & completely torn up main road  to town. Eventually we regained the paved road and then the main highway to Santa Cruz. The drive to Santa Cruz was hot and uneventful and we made great time to the city. The road to Santa Cruz was fast and straight  and soon we were inside the outer ring road and in the city proper. Not really sure where we were going to stay we tried to find a hotel with suitable and secure parking. Not having any luck we decided to try two camp grounds we had passed on the way in. Russ also spotted a Toyota workshop on the main road and we pulled in to see if they could replace Troy’s CV boots. A very helpful service adviser, who spoke excellent English, advised us that Bolivia will not repair a Toyota Tundra older than 2008 as they do not stock parts for the older models, that really sucked. But he did put me onto another workshop that Toyota contracts work out to and the location of a parts supplier that had everything we needed. Russ booked Troy in for new CV boots and we went in search of a camp for the night.

imageThe first place was resort style and didn’t want to know about us unless we booked an expensive room and ate at their expensive restaurant, no thanks amigo. The next place was 20 km from town and down a crap dirt road. We pulled into the Colpa Caranda camping and resort and were greeted by the Manager and his staff. We explained our requirement and were given the perfect spot nestled in among the trees in the best camp ground we have stayed in, ever. We had access to hot showers and the staff ran an electric lead to the camper, we paid a few dollars a night and had free run of the resort and grounds, including a lake complete with a resident capybara colony. We ate at the restaurant the first evening and made friends with Panchito the prickly pig or Pancho for short. We later found out that Pancho has a penchant for beer, the little bugger could easily knock back a dozen cans if you’d let him and not slur his grunt. Yet again we had another resort to ourselves, not another guest in sight so we explored the lakeside tracks watching grunting capybara’s leap into the water when we approached and spying toucan’s with their huge multi colored beaks flit through the canopy high above. Also thrown into the animal mix were a few roaming mares with fluffy inquisitive foals, we imagemanaged the odd scratch behind an ear or a dusty pat on the neck before they moved onto another patch of lush green grass. We spent one day in Santa Cruz replacing Troy’s CV boots and decided that the following morning we would make for the historical and Bolivian constitutional city of Sucre, some 600 km from Santa Cruz.

blocksWe were packed down and about to bid our farewells when the manager advised us that we couldn’t pass through Santa Cruz today because of road blockades. We had heard about these political blockades and seen them on the news but had not encountered them so far on our travels through Bolivia. Today was our first blockade experience and it sucked being at the mercy of angry locals blocking off the highway at multiple locations with rocks and burning tires, effectively isolating the entire city from all external traffic. As we soon learnt, every blockade has an alternative route around it and almost always on a crap Bolivian 4WD track that leads over a mountain and far away. We were given the directions for the alternative route to bypass Santa Cruz but decided to wait it out. At 1 PM the manager found us and announced that the blockade had finished and the highway was open, we had lost 5 hours of driving time but decided to head off anyway as there might be another blockade in the morning for any one of a thousand reasons.

imageNot long after leaving Colpa Caranda camp ground we were driving the outer ring road that skirts Santa Cruz and heading west to Samaipata and the southern boundary of Amboro NP. We decided to take the old highway to Samaipata, which was a 2 hour drive from camp and stay at there for the night. We we arrived we found it was not suitable and we pressed on. Anna had coordinates for a camp up in the hills near a nation park so we drove up another crappy Bolivian bush road/ track and eventually came to a very steep driveway that lead down to the valley far, far below. We had seen buildings in the same valley from another point on the road and hoped that was not our destination. But the sign said it was the track to the camp ground and Russ wasn’t keen to take troy down so steep a grade and he was even less enthusiastic about having to drive back up it. We were finding that a lot of tracks here were proving too greater a risk for us to drive on in Bolivia due to our size and height. Regardless of the grade Russ decide to run to the camp and ask if it was OK to camp up at the road. After 45 minutes of running Russ was at the valley floor and over the river that ran through it, but no nearer to the buildings we had seen previously. Light was fading fast and he decide to abandon his run and make back to Anna and Troy with all haste. There was no running up the hill, instead Russ walked up on rubber legs and with a pronounced wheeze, the last time Russ had done any kind of aerobic exercise was in 2002 when he played first grade for East’s. We won’t say how long it took Russ to get back to Troy but it was well dark when he arrived back and he looked a bit thinner. The executive decision was made to drive back down to the highway and find another camp for the night.

Are-You-Using-Marketing-to-Sabotage-Your-Business-Success-3-Danger-SignsMost overlanders will tell you ‘the golden rule is to never, ever drive at night’, and there is a fair bit of justification with that statement. But desperate times call for desperate measures and it can be done. We have driven Southern & Eastern Africa, Mexico, and Central & South America from dusk to dawn, on remote bush roads and highways and has never had a problem, near misses, yeah sure, but no more than in Sydney, L.A. or any other civilised country. Two of the most dangerous drives we’ve experienced is western Tanzania after dark and the other is on any outback road at dusk or dawn when Skippy, the 8 ft tall 90 kg Western Red Kangaroo, somehow feels obliged to hop toward headlights and make a grand entrance through the engine bay or windscreen at +120 km/h. There are always the obligatory roadside pedestrians at night such as black people, pigs, cows, goats, sheep, dogs, llama’s, alpaca’s, giraffes & perhaps the odd rhino, cyclist’s without reflectors, motorcyclists without reflectors or lights, vehicles without reflectors, lights, doors, bonnets or windows and let’s not forget the bricks, rocks, road craters and small trees left on the road to warn of a broken down vehicle ahead and the large rocks used as wheel chocks left behind by the now repaired broken down vehicle, also the head on trucks overtaking trucks, buses overtaking trucks, trucks and buses overtaking donkey and cart all at once or the generally poor road conditions. My all time favorite are the cars, trucks and buses with only one working offside headlight on high beam driving toward you down the center of the road. But, if your vehicle has a decent set of driving lights and you keep the speed down it can be done in relative safety, just don’t get lost and don’t stop, ever.

imageAfter gaining the highway we kept driving west and eventually came across a large road sign advertising a campground with an arrow pointing down a side road, we turned off, followed the road for a couple of hundred meters and made a river crossing before driving into a huge run down camping ground that hadn’t seen a camper in many years, perfect. After a futile door knocking on the only building with a light on we were ready to pick out a spot and set up for the night regardless when a set of headlights swung into the gate and made for us. Russ said hi to the owner of the ground, negotiated a fee and was given directions to our location for the night. We pulled up not far from the ablution block and made camp. It had turned into quite a big day for us and we were both tired, we also knew we had another another big day on the road tomorrow. The next morning Russ noticed fluid leaking from one of the new CV boots, it wasn’t too bad but it was still a leak all the same, we couldn’t do anything until Sucre anyway so we continued on the same highway until we reached the first turnoff to Sucre.

imageThe highway was still paved up until this point and it continued on ahead, the new highway was a rough unpaved road which would likely shake the hell out of our vehicle and camper as Bolivian roads tend to do. We had 2 options open to us at this point, option 1: take the shorter but rougher route or option: 2 take the better but longer route. We took option 2 to avoid smashing the shit out of our truck and camper. Little did we know that our better, but longer paved road turned into an unpaved road as well but it was still in better condition and easier on the truck than option: 1. We traversed huge mountains and passed by dramatic road side drops that can only be witnessed in Bolivia. In the distance we watched clouds cascade over the lip of a mountainous escarpment and float some 5000 ft. to the valley floor below like some heavenly waterfall, we passed ancient alpine forests with gigantic grandfather trees draped in moss and glistening with diamond droplets of moisture left over from the last passing cloud. As we descend off the mountains the cloud soaked bush thinned to pine forest and then to patchwork farms imageand crops of corn and wheat. The local indigenous Indians still managed their land with hoe, plow and sweat just as their ancestors had for centuries, nothing has changed except that solar cells & satellite dishes now point skyward from thatched roofs and mud brick walls.

imageEventually we did regain the paved highway and arrived at the next intersection that will take us to Sucre. We make the turn and drive a further 15 km and into the neat little village of Totora, our overnight stop. We view a local hotel and decide that it’s safe to camp under a street light in front of the Municipal Offices. We pop the camper roof and set up for the night. The locals don’t know what to make of us, they stare and talk among themselves but never approach the camper and never touch it. We find a local restaurant for dinner and say hola to the local Policia who assure us that we’re OK where we are, they have already seen us and we feel as secure as you can on a street. Russ will still sleep with one eye and one ear open. After dinner we explore the small town and make our way to the main square. A few of the shops have closed but most are still open, this is a rural town and the tienda’s (shops) are geared up for the farmers and sell everything from bread and eggs to fertiliser and farming implements. We walk into a brightly lit tienda and buy a tray of eggs, the señora (lady) asks why Russ is purchasing so many eggs and he tells her they are ‘to be cooked and eaten’ (para ser cocinado y comido), surprised she asks where he is going to cook them to which he replies “en mi cocina señora” (in my kitchen ma’am) we don’t know what she says next but we think it went something like this; ‘where is that gringo idiot going to get a kitchen from? He’s clearly not from around here and more to the point does he even know how to cook an egg’.

imageOur street camp happens to be on the main thoroughfare through the town which meant that every bus, truck, car and donkey drawn cart had to pass by us. Russ brought in the back step to prevent people from stepping up to the camper door, it’s not that easy for us to step up without the step and for a short arsed Bolivian, not a chance as was proven at check points. We watched a movie before crawling into our super comfy bed and hunkered down for a well-deserved sleep. Trucks laden with goods parked up next to us during the night and overnight buses stopped briefly. It was a noisy night with the constant traffic but we both slept pretty well regardless. The next morning the sun was bright and the air chilly, Anna ‘cooked the man some eggs’ and we ate breakfast. Soon after we packed down and left our cosy but noisy street camp, we hadn’t yet left the town when Russ saw an elderly lady trying very hard to place a tin star on a hook above her doorway, she was 3’6” in height, foot to fingertip, and the hook was about 7’ high under the eve. Russ pulled over and got out, said good morning and asked if he could help her hang the star, delighted, the old lady handed over the battered Christmas star and Russ hung it over her door. We were invited in for tea and something to eat but unfortunately we did not have time and still had a reasonable distance to travel. Russ did ask permission to photograph her and with great reluctance she agreed. He took a photo and then we made tracks for Sucre.

imageBolivia does have some strange structures that do seem out of place considering the location in which they are set. During our drive on one particular rough and remote section of highway/ unpaved road at best a very modern and well-constructed bridge appeared out of the bush spanning a river at the bottom of a deep gorge. We were used to crossing bridges with exposed and rusting reinforcing steel and large holes through the deck or both so we were surprised to see this one in the butt end of nowhere.

imageAs we neared Sucre we could see in the distance the last climb up an escarpment and into the city, that was when Russ noticed the long line of parked trucks snaking from top to bottom, this spelt only one thing, a blockade. We drove to the Policia checkpoint at the bottom of the escarpment and spoke to the duty officer who told us in English ‘the blockade will finish tomorrow morning, but there is another way in if you have a 4WD’. No thanks mate, we will wait until tomorrow. There was a service station at the bottom and we asked if we could stop there, the place was slowly filling up with trucks and cars, the buses still trundled past and up to the blockaded section of road to drop off passengers who then walk past the blockade, catch another bus on the other side and continue on into Sucre. Another night in another service station didn’t sound very nice so we back tracked to a few riverside locations we had seen from the road that might make a good overnight stop.

imageThirty five minutes later we drove into a small town where we had seen people waiting for the ‘bus that never comes’. Russ got out and had a chat to them and an older lady who was a nun and spoke great English said we could stay at her house for the night. Anna moved over and she hopped in and we drove to her house. The house was amazing with a huge section of land and a pool that overlooked farm paddocks and the river in the distant. The nun lived alone but had a young girl stay with her in the evenings for company. Anna offered to cook dinner for everyone that night and asked if a beef Rogan Josh curry would be OK, the nun loved the sound of the idea but wasn’t sure if the young girl and her sister would like it, they were about to find out. The curry was fabulous and the nun loved it, Anna made as mild a curry as she could but it’s still a curry and by nature it’s a spicy dish. The girls ate a fair amount but in the end it was too spicy for them having never tasted curry before this, ever. Anna made a meal pack from the left overs to gave it to the girl’s mother and father to  taste, we suspected that they have never eaten curry either.

imageWe were up early the next morning and after our thanks and farewells we made for Sucre. Not too far down the road Russ heard a not so good screech, crunch and then rubbing sound that changed in pitch with the road speed, he got out for a look and saw fluid on the inside of the rear drivers side tire, the fluid was oil which meant a rear bearing and seal, damn,  but we could still drive and Russ monitored it, the CV boot leak had gotten worse so Russ dumped 500 ml of transmission fluid into the front differential, it would last until Sucre, he hoped. We reached the escarpment and drove past the rocks and burnt out tires that were yesterday’s blockade. The road took us through the industrial section and Russ saw a Toyota Parts tienda and stopped for a chat, the owner knew a mechanic and could get the parts that he needed. We drove to the mechanic who was perched on the side of the hill which is a far cry from the Toyota workshops with air-conditioning, coffee machines, internet and slinky sales chic’s strutting around in smart skirts, lip stick and high heels.

imageRuss booked in for the next morning and we made for the campground that every overlanding gringo stays at when in Sucre. We found our way to the gated campground in the center of the city and squeezed in with 3 other overland vehicles. The camp ground was more of a back yard that had a small workshop in the front and a kitchen & ablution facilities at the rear. At a pinch and with some very tight maneuvering another two 4WD vehicles might fit in, just. We parked in the driveway effectively blocking everyone else in which didn’t matter because nobody was interested in driving anywhere anyway. The blockades had spooked everyone and some had been trapped here for weeks. The main square was a few blocks from the campground so we set off for an explore. The lonely plant said that Sucre was a beautiful colonial city that rivals any other in the Americas, as far as colonial cities are concerned it was pretty ordinary, we had passed through far better on our way down and agreed we wouldn’t waste too much time here. The next morning we had the rear bearing repaired and as it turn out that the previous mechanic in Santa Cruz had left a sliver of metal inside the front diff when the CV boots were being replaced, the metal sliver made its way to the seal causing the leak, over time when in 4WD (which we always engage on unsealed roads) the leak had gotten worse to the point of a steady flow . After the repair was finished we made for camp and another explore of Sucre. 

realOur next destination was Uyuni or more specifically the Sal de Uyuni, the highest & largest salt flat on earth and a 360 km drive south east of Sucre. Not surprisingly another blockade was in place since arriving in Sucre and we were stuck, again, or were we? We did learn that blockades are not really enforced during the night between 10:30 PM and 06:00 AM because, A: Its cold and B: it’s boring and more comfortable to be asleep in your bed at night. We also learnt that all blockades are suspended on Friday nights and are never enforced over the weekends so Bolivians can attend the very important football matches being played all around the country, but, come 6 AM on Monday morning it is game on again, lets start burning tires. On Friday afternoon we decided on a night trip with an over-nighter in Potosi, the home of Bolivian silver mining and home to Potosi Real FC, Russ’s adopted favorite football club. We readied Troy for travel, restocked the pantry, polished the headlights and prepared for the night run to Potosi, some 2-3 hours away. Another haggling game at the gas station negotiated a fair-ish price at the pump and we fueled up, ready to go. We reached the first blockade expecting the worst but instead saw that the rock’s and tires had been pushed to the side and not a soul was in sight, obviously the Sucre FC team bus had passed through during the afternoon, it was probably on it’s way to play Potosi Real. Viva Potosi Real!

busWith the last of the fading light we were making great time but Russ noticed the complete absence of oncoming traffic, this wasn’t all bad, it did signal that a blockade was in force at Potosi but it also meant that we had the road to ourselves, sorry I meant ourselves and any local wild Llama’s we might meet on the way. The highway was in great condition and the lack of other vehicles on the road made driving easy and when we were a hour or so from Potosi we encountered the first of a long line of on coming buses heading in the opposite direction, woohoo, the Potosi blockade had been suspended for the weekend footy. Next stop Potosi.

Check out The German, a nun and a Prickly Pig blog pics here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.553636888005421.1073741844.319040084798437&type=3

Troy vs. The Amazon

imageSuccessfully surviving the ‘world’s most dangerous road’ we were now in the mood for a big city and La Paz wasn’t cutting it this time. We needed propane, grocery supplies and a good night on the town. This was becoming something of a habit, our city fix every few weeks to dance with hip local crowds, sample treats and ferret out the local music scene. Cochabamba was perfect for this. The lonely planet described this Southwest hub as Bolivia’s boom city with an introduction like that we couldn’t miss it.

imageWe exited La Paz for the last time and followed the traffic out and onto another typical Bolivian ‘soon to open in 3035’ super highway that bottle necks to a 10m wide crater ridden road over distance of a few meters. The dusty & stark Altiplano landscape changed very little at first but as we neared the rural fringe of our destination city, foot paths and road verges began to fill with local vendors selling every manner of goods or wares. Street food and fried chicken aromas float with the breeze. But, as Bolivia is, oxygen deprived, dry and dusty air filled our lungs once again. The further we progress poorer areas are increasingly more common. Houses downscale to huts and life becomes rugged and raw. Dusty villages and towns eventually gave way as the landscape opens up, massive angular granite spires and peaks begin to round and soften, hills imagebegin to roll. The exposed layers of strata, colorful and varied, form complex patterns over the hills. Small farming villages dot the country side and soon only local, traditionally dressed folk wondered the roads. This felt very much like the Bolivia we came to know and love.

imageThe route to Cochabamba involved an overnight stop, somewhere where Anna could rest as she was still not feeling that strong. We opted to overnight in the so called undesirable town of Oruro. Most overlanders described this place as a necessary overnight stop with little else to offer, they were correct. The streets were dirty, the wind was gusting and filled was dust. The street vibe seemed a little too transient for our liking. Road conditions between major tourist towns in Bolivia dictate exactly where a likely campsite might be, main focus being a secure place to park and sleep for the night. Urban boon docking in this town is not advisable. We followed coordinates given by previous travelers to a hotel that allowed overlanders to squeeze into their car park and camp behind a huge locked and barbed wired gate. We weave through the un-posted streets and rely less on a thoroughly confused GPS, and more on an iPad app and lonely planet map to get us to the hotel. We eventually get there to do battle with a reverse entry through a narrow gate. Russ negotiates a small overnight fee for toilet no shower for $10. Perfecto? This is another one of those times when it’s not so glamorous and the night is spent holed up in a carpark, inside the camper, cooking tea then hitting bed early so the morning will come sooner and we can be on our way.

imageIn the morning we drove out of Oruro and turned south west towards Cochabamba. The arid landscape morphs from ancient granite mountains to beautiful grass strewn slopes and then into a patchwork quilt of farms and crops. The scenery rolls by in patches of bright greens splotched among the earthy browns of soil and rock. Soon Cochabamba comes into view.

imageThe city’s name is derived from the Quechua khocha pampa, meaning ‘swampy plain’. Cochabamba lies in a fertile green bowl, 25km long by 10km wide, set in a landscape of fields and low hills. To the northwest rises Cerro Tunari (5035m), the highest peak in central Bolivia and as we roll into the center of town the nearby hills and peaks guard the area like they have for millennium. While much of the city is poor there are areas of the city that seem prosperous and seemingly sophisticated. Sophistication in this town, on closer inspection, is directly proportional to one’s bank balance. 

imageCochabamba has a completely different buzz to La Paz, and we like what we see on the busy narrow streets. We ferret out a spot to base ourselves for a few days. We blindly select a hostel that reads well from the lonely planet and make our way there hoping for a nice clean room and parking nearby. The streets are vibrant. Filled with traditional dressed Bolivian woman working, selling or making their way to somewhere. Young trendy students hang in parks, chatting on phones or face booking mates. Businesses of every kind are in full trade. We have been told they love their food, the bar scene is happening and the markets some of the best in the country. We are excited!

DSC_9292We really scored well with the accommodation, a great hostel room that had a window which opens to the car park next door, a perfect view of Troy and penthouse. We collect our ‘hotel bags’ and set up our room. Next we enjoy a long hot shower before donning going out attire. The narrow streets are busy as we search for local beer & Cochabambian cuisine. On the next block are the street food vendors, their variety is tasty & enormous. It has been a long time since we’ve had such choice, burgers, hot dogs, soups, grilled meats and local dishes on offer. We go a little crazy and order up large, still not managing to spend more than $15. We walk off our over indulgence and take in the culture around us. This is a living, breathing and thriving Bolivian city. The tourism in Cochabamba relies heavily on home-grown travelers, foreign tourists, although present, are not very common here. The local way of life still pulses strong through the streets of Cochabamba. We are really enjoying what Cochabamba has to offer. As is when traditional vs. modern clash, the historical or traditional charm of a place can be suppressed under the layer of modernism that comes with success and growth. This was not the case in Cochabamba, the closer we looked the more we liked it here.

imageOur principle reason to drive this way was to shop the local markets and scope out the textile shopping. Anna had determined that prices were cheaper here than in neighboring Peru. Anna reverted effortlessly in to ‘mistress shopaholic’ and led us to deep into the markets and to the fabrics rows. We have been keeping an eye out for choice pieces of anything to decorate our home when we return to Australia. We were told the markets are not touristy and very much a local affair. We were warned that being a tourist was basically being a target and to be extremely cautious when walking around. Having similar experience in black African markets we packed the wallet and secured it inside our trusty ‘pick pocket proof’ pack. Anna had her camera firmly under grip as we jumped a local chicken bus and headed to La Cancha Markets, one of the biggest markets in Bolivia. The city market occupies who knows how many city blocks and is one of the most crowded, chaotic, claustrophobic, and exhilarating shopping locations in Bolivia. We shopped hard for 4 solid hours, wandering lost and spending up on all things bright. Local vendors constantly warned us about watching our pack, vendors also nod wearily at Anna’s camera which is firmly attached around her neck. We venture deeper in to the markets and find the textiles section and successfully purchase a dozen awayu’s at dead set, fair dinkum local prices. Much to the amusement of the local woman staring as Russ closes the deal with the local vendor. An Awayu is the traditional woven blanket, worn mainly by woman on their backs and knotted at the front. It’s used to carry small children and all kinds of items. The fabric is brightly colored with stripes and symbols. Anna was fascinated with the imagedesigns and has big ideas for their uses at home. So as Russ sealed the deal and loaded up the backpack. Ladies of all age sniggered and gawked at the thought of Russ making use of so many Awayu’s, ‘he must have quite a few wives back home and needed that many for them all’ very mysterious is the way of the gringo?

imageWith the main task accomplished we shouted ourselves to one of the nicest restaurants in town and splurge on fine dining. We cabbed from the poor part of town, across the river and to a spacious, cool and hip suburb of where our driver recommends a religious detour while subtlety boasting his city having the largest Jesus in the world. We mention to him ‘what about Rio?’  To which we get a full rundown of the Cristo de la Concordia. The statue is 34.20 metres tall, on a pedestal of 6.24 metres, for a total height of 40.44 metres. The statue is slightly larger than Christ the King in Świebodzin, Poland (if the 2 metres high crown of Christ the King is not counted) and Christ the Redeemer outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, making this the largest statue of Jesus Christ in the world. He drives us to the entrance and encourages us to go and see him for ourselves. He is indeed an impressive site. Now being non-religious people we gracefully skirted around the hordes of people praying to mobile phones and the statue alike. We found quite a good spot to sit and admire his enormity. At least 10 minutes had passed and feeling our godly deed had been done we made a beeline for the cab and bit farewell to the giant Jesus. Our bellies were grumbling and we’d had enough of all things tourist, a short cab ride later we are seated at the Cochabamba classic, Casa de Campo, an open air restaurant serving local dishes with imagea fusion twist and all whilst mingling with the beautiful, sophisticated and rich Cochabamban’s.  We order vegetable sopa, grilled meat and a local rabbit dish and waste our afternoon discussing our next destination, making our way further along into the Amazon.

imageThe route No 4 from Cochabamba into the Santa Cruz province was described to us as uninspiring views and terrible roads. Now if it wasn’t for the end destination we would have heeded this advice and gone the other way, but we felt ready for another adventure and decided to take it on regardless of what had been said. Excellent road conditions are generally found on the National Highways, but this is still rural Bolivia, it’s a given that road conditions are going to be poor.

imageThe views on this route were anything but uninspiring. The brown marshy flats turned back into green lush rain forest. Thick jungle dominated the mountains towering above us as we drive on a really cool country road. The road is paved the entire way, but, sections of road have moved, dipped, dropped or disappeared altogether, potholes and craters notwithstanding. Blind corners are aplenty and when oncoming heavy vehicles occupy our side of the road, yeah, adrenalin injection. After a solid day of driving we make it to the small town of Buena Vista which is nestled on the lowlands of the Santa Cruz province. Buena Vista also rubs shoulders with its neighbor the Amboro National park, and our gateway further into the Amazon jungle.

imageWe arrive on sunset with an empty gas tank and are greeting with road cones blocking gas stations entries and an attendant waving us the ‘no gas’ signal. Both local gas stations had run dry and we resigned for the afternoon and hoped the morning bode better. We cruise around the beautiful but small town plaza, and again as Troy roars past locals we get the usual stares and nods. We park and open our doors to the first heat we have felt in a while. The tropical warmth hits us we smile at each other knowing we are in Amazon country! There is no actual campground in town and like so many times before we set about asking locals where is possible for us to camp the night. Eventually local German general store owner pointed us in the direction of the coffee plantation, suggesting they had large space and might possibly accommodate us. So with our sketchy direction we set of onto dirt tracks past local villages and huts until we see a sign ‘El Cafetal’ and that very moment we think we have discovered an absolute hidden gem.

imageRuss chatted in Spanglish with the staff and they kindly agreed to let us park on their manicured front lawn, front and center in their beautiful tropical jungle property. We were the first camper to ever visit and stay with them at the coffee plantations and they were excited to have foreign travelers here at their place enjoying what their town has to offer, no charge required. The Café and surrounding land is a local initiative that employs local villages to grow, roast and package organic coffee for export and share in the profits. Bolivian’s were proving to be an absolutely wonderful people. After parking Troy under a light and next to a power source we started to gaze around at where we actually were and we both just stood, slack jawed, staring at the view in front of us.

imageEl Cafetal is in the midst of lush vegetation on the edge of the Amboro National Park, surrounded by well maintained gardens and in absolute harmony with nature. Built up on a ridge that overlooks the wonderful landscape of the Amboró NP. The ranch occupies an area of 300 hectares. The coffee initiative marked the beginning of a comprehensive tourism project that today proudly showcases the Hotel Hacienda El Cafetal and administers the Bolivia Exporta Foundation.

imageThe sun was starting to set as we climbed the 12 metre observation tower to get a better view across to the national park to see the Amazon Jungle better. It was a truly spectacular site lit under an orange and pink dusk. We toasted a beer and sat and enjoyed the show. When the morning arrived we marveled some more at the view in full sunlight. We could have been standing somewhere in Kenya at that moment, the view was exactly the same, even the trees and vegetation looked so similar. We were excited to be looking into the Amazon Jungle and keen to get in there. After making use of the facilities and taking a swim in the pool to cool down we headed back into town to chase gasoline and make our way into Amboro NP.

imageHoping this would be easy we joined the first queue of cars at the first gas station. We waited about an hour in the heat before it was our turn to hit the pump. Even before we rolled into the space we had a bad feeling. They attendants were examining the plates, sniggering at our foreign face, Russ took a breath and jumped out armed with his Spanglish gas lingo. A 15 minute conversation commenced with the refusal to sell to us. We alerted them to the fact that we has no gas and couldn’t move, we need gas, and you can sell to us, all to no avail. The growing audience was becoming frustrated at us holing up the flow of purchase and we resigned to trying the second station in town. With 90 minutes wasted we proceed to join another hour long queue then eventually are served, filled up and ready to hit the road. Week 2 into Bolivia and the gas situation is a pain in the butt, we needed to crack a plan of attack for future fill ups, but we paused that thought and filed it in the ‘to do’ box in our brains.

imageParque Nacionál Amboró is one of the most botanically rich national parks in the world. There is over 125 mammal species including puma, ocelot, and the rare Spectacled Bear all that were defiantly on our list of wildlife still to spot! This extraordinary park crosses two ‘divides’: the warmer northern Amazonian-type section, and the southern Yungas-type section, with cooler temperatures (and noticeably fewer mosquitoes!). The park entrance requires river crossings, one wide flowing one followed by another 2 in order to get into the heart of the fauna. We were set for an adventure and made our way towards the river, amped for some river crossings.

imageWe drive the sand tracks towards the river where the locals stop what they are doing an watch in wonder as Troy and Penthouse roll up to the river’s edge. They watch us curiously as Russ makes the 4WD adjustments for our first deep crossing. We sit and watch the river for a few minutes, Russ assessing if we can actually make this, the river is 150 m wide and around 1.2m deep and the water is flowing at a steady velocity. Local men look at our clearance and give us an encouraging nod. We watch a small truck cross and make the call do it, Troy rolls down the river embankment and into the river and straight away the water is at the bottom of the doors. Russ is in low range 4×4 and speeds up to keep his engine speed up, he’s also managed to created a descent bow wave to help keep water from swamping the engine. We bounce and gurgle over rocks, sand and holes and the water level seriously seemed shallower from the shore. It is a strange feeling when your entire home and possessions might soon be ‘in the river’. The closeness of the water when looking out of the window or in the side mirrors nervously constricts the throat imageuntil we are across river, up the steep embankment and onto the safely of dry land. We make it to the other side, no sweat. Troy didn’t miss a beat, as usual, and suddenly river crossings don’t seem so daunting. The now large crowd give us a cheery applause and we set off through the park gates.

imageThe road quickly turn to tracks and sandy dust turns to slippery mud. We give each other a look of ‘is this such a good idea?’ Both wondering if any other truck campers had come along this route before. Troy was loving it, he is made for this, he has new mud tires and plenty of horses under the bonnet. Troys real burden is the weigh he is carrying. We brace penthouse for a bumpy ride and push on through the wheel ruts in the mud. The jungle gets thicker and greener. The noises of a hundred different birds and insects overpowers the stereo. The lushness of the amazon is everywhere around us and then after another 7 Km we come to the second river crossing. The river is smaller, it is still wide but not as deep or fast. No worries, we charge across with confidence and excitement. 2 for 2, one more and we are in the heart!

imageWith our late start to the day due to gas purchasing the sun was already starting to dip, with one more crossing and a fair drive inland to the camp we start to hustle through the tracks which brings us to the 3rd and final crossing. Automatically our faces drop and the excitement fades. It’s deep, real deep and as Russ wades across to investigate and returns with the no go shake of the head. We would like to think we are as capable as most other 4wd overlanders. But we know our limits and this was one. With heavy hearts we turned around and made our way back towards the entrance. Debating whether to just camp in the wilderness here but we were deterred by some locals who wouldn’t give us their confidence in the safety of the area due to a small population living in the surrounds. With this information and a setting sun we high tailed it towards the mainland and El Cafetal.

imageWithin 15 minutes we are driving the jungle mud tracks in the dark. As we round a corner we come across workers whose truck is stuck half way up the incline of a hill, the track is a heaving mud pit and their truck has slipped into the middle of it. After the obligatory 3 second watching of the wheels spin the workers break out the shovels and dig and dig. Russ backs us off to the bottom of the hill to avoid the truck if it slides too far back. The work boys are pushing and digging, not fancying being stuck out here for the night. We gulp at the thought of our own efforts to get up this hill after they get going because now the track is a real mess. 30 mins later they push their way out and are tracking towards the crest of the hill. Now our friends, they wait and watch as we make our attempt. Russ pushes Troy hard and crosses his fingers. We impress with a flawless ride and pop up the top with no effort required. We agree to follow behind the truck until the river crossings for safety. We mentioned the feeling of river crossings in the day, multiply that by 1000 for the dark. It’s just feels wrong and half way through the last and widest one we finally breathe a sigh of relieve and enjoy the adrenalin kick. Adventures. You never know how they will turn our or which watch they will go, this is what makes them fun!

imageWe spend another night camping at El Cafetal, making plans to further explore the area, work our way around the park and hang out in the jungle a little longer. Russ returns from the toilet only to spot something very special, an up-close and personal encounter with Mr Sloth. We haven’t seen these guys since Costa Rica and not this close. We creep in front of the camper for a better view and for the next 10 minutes watch Mr Sloth crawl along the fence, onto the ground and under the palapa before sniffing out the kitchen and disappearing into the fauna. He moved ever so slowly and ever so gracefully. We try not to alert the camp dogs to his presence, hes not much of a fighter and looses most predator battles. To watch his motions close up in the wild was truly a privilege. 

imageThe next day we decide to drive through 100km or so of jungle towns dotted along the river separating Buena Vista and Amboro NP. Overnight it had rained and as we approached the river we are thank full we came back last night. The river was swollen in flood, trees floated past and waves were cresting in the channels. No one was crossing and locals told us it can take 2-3 days for the level to drop. We were glad to be on this side of the brown surging river. We spent a better part of the day weaving in and out of tropical villages and exploring the river’s edge. The tropical trees and plants reminded us of far north QLD and all that was missing were splattered cane toads on the roads. The local people were smiley and curious of us. Their simple way of life untouched by modernism. It felt like a world away from any city and easy to get lost in.

imageOur German general shop owner mentioned there was a privately run jungle not far from town, owned by a British bird researcher and a German running an Eco hostel. We could try our chances at camping there and enjoying our very own piece of the amazon. We located the drive way and as we start to push through the low and narrow branches the sky turns dark and another tropical downpour sets it. The long overgrown driveway seems to go on forever and we contemplate turning back. Russ moves slightly off the track to miss an overhead tree limb suddenly the front slides into a drainage ditch across the track, no problem and we reverse out. The next time we move forward again we drive slightly further off the track and the rear wheel slides into a side drain and is up to its axle in mud, the engine roars but we are not moving. It’s dark, pouring a torrent with rain and we are stuck in the middle of a very isolated piece of jungle, blocking the only track in or out. We grab our raincoats and headlamps and walk up the hill side in search of a light in the very dark & wet Amazonian jungle.

Check out the Cochabamba and Amazon pics : https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.535667689802341.1073741843.319040084798437&type=3

Cocaine country and the world’s most dangerous road

imageWe departed La Paz early the next morning and drove through the maze of one and two-way streets that changed direction depending on the direction & volume of traffic. More often than not this phenomena had us driving into headlight flashing horn, honking oncoming traffic… not to mention the standard local donkey drawn carts that paid no heed to truck, bus or cart driver alike. Eventually the congestion shook its self into a kind of chaotic pattern, the buildings began shrink and thin out and somewhere in the madness that is La Paz we crossed the city limits and into the high and arid countryside once again. The day was bright, sunny and positively frigid as we climbed out of La Paz and up to Laguna Estrellani, which denotes the summit of Ruta 3 (National Bolivian Route 3) before the downhill drive to Coroico and the Yungas.

Fact: The Yungas supplies 70% of Bolivia’s cocaine and 28% of the world’s supply… plus it has a death road, coincidence?

Clause 1.2.3.4.5.6.7.8.9.10 – Dodgy indemnity clause 102
Globalincsafari does not condone the use of drugs, the supply of narcotics or the use of prohibited refined substances from Bolivia or other regions in South America.

DSC_8355It is at this point that two routes can be used to drive to Coroico, the new highway, which is pretty good as far as Bolivian highways are concerned, or the infamous death road which is more a narrow track carved into mountain cliffs and barely wide enough for passage in which trucks, buses and cars have, in the past, used to maintain commerce with the national capital and outside world beyond.

imageUpon reaching Laguna Estrellani we pull over at a suitable, and safe road side parking location to survey both of the roads which, at this point ,separate and snake down the gargantuan valley and into the distance far away. Far below the summit clouds gatherer, towering and contesting the mountains to who is mightier than whom, after a brief clash the Bolivian mountains win, hands down. Driving in Bolivia sometimes involves hovering at unusually high altitudes, 10 000 ft to 15 000 ft is commonly expected, and viewing clouds from high above is quite normal. Altitude and machine are not with problems, air is thin and engine combustion is affected. The one mechanical problem that we never experienced was loss of engine power due to altitude, diesel engines will lose power at altitude, so will gasoline engines running on lower octane fuel. We never refueled Troy on less than 95 octane and Troy’s gasoline engine delivered reliable V8 power on demand, every time, and no exceptions. It is at this point that tourist buses and Landrover 110’s with mountain bikes strapped to them litter every available parking space on the highway. Tourists clad in lycra and motocross style body armor stretch out in yoga poses, real ankle behind the head/ touch your spine with an elbow routines, before mounting their carbon fiber NASA Mars landing lunar bikes for the downhill white knuckle ride of a lifetime. We suspected that a reasonable amount of ‘Bolivian riding powder’ may of been consumed before the event commences, which makes sense, because one tiny teeny screw up or hesitation will likely send them over the edge and into space or at the very least under an oncoming truck. And this is not the death road… yet.

DSC_8324After assessing the upper section of the death road we fire up Troy begin the long descent to Coroico. It doesn’t take long to catch up to our first group of cyclist who are spread from both sides of the road and barely have control of their modern day mounts. In true European/ American/ crazyness the peloton is spread all over the road in a fierce showdown of man vs road… now enter Troy his quite large and agile mass into the equation and we have a real quandary. Russ has ridden, training regularly, in heavy traffic for years and knows first-hand what happens when a cyclist and motorist clash on a busy road, it goes something like this; driver exits vehicle in one piece and cyclist goes to hospital for the next 6 days broken and missing a lot of skin. It is with this experience that Russ cursed often under his breath when yet another cyclist, full of confidence and listening to an iPod, doesn’t hear our ‘were coming through‘ warning horn and believing the road is theirs comes very close to side swiping the truck at 70 km/h as we drive past. We eventually leave the cyclists behind and drive straight into our very first Narcotics Checkpoint. Slowing down to the required 20 km/h we approach the unmanned Policiá check point, we stop at the stop sign and then power up to head off again. Russ see’s two Policiá waving at him to stop and they indicate for us pull over, they have been caught off guard and were watching the footy on TV, Potosi vs La Paz and we think the miners are winning, viva la Potosi Real!. We are now on the receiving end of 2 cranky cops that has been drawn away from the footy plus the fact that we nearly drove off without their express permission. Russ winds down the window and receives a spray of Español through the window, luckily Russ’s Espanol is crap and he has no idea what is said and asks the guy if he speaks English… in broad Australian English, no such luck. After the usual Español/ Spanglish/ salutations they wanted to look in the camper, “no problemo amigo” ”knock yourself out sunshine”. The bad cop – bad cop routine quickly turned into a good cop – bad cop scenario when the senior of the two spied Anna in the passenger seat and proceeded to chat her up for a possible date and / or marriage proposal, leaving bad cop to Russ. Bad cop turns out to be the check point ferret standing 4”2’ in heels… only just. Russ offers him a leg up into the camper but he declines and after thoughtful hesitation he manages to awkwardly, and un-manly like, hoist himself up and rummage through the camper in a truly pathetic attempt at a narcotics search, 0 out of 10 for effort all round. High heels cop did manage to open the fridge and have a solitary beer fall out, Russ gave him the nod and it was his and suddenly bad cop transformed to ‘I just scored a cerveza from a gringo’ cop and moments later he vaulted down and we were all mates again. Russ didn’t know what transpired in the cab with Anna but after a handshake and more Español/ Spanglish we roared out of the check point with Anna not sporting a dowry, wedding ring or Bolivia surname.

imageEventually we drove through the clouds, beneath the piercing spires of granite and snow which towered over the subsistence farms on the valley floor far below. Yet again, Bolivia’s dynamic alto topography shifted from ice, snow and cloud to the lower, warmer jungles of the Bolivian Amazon. Waterfalls cascaded from the heavens and the chill of altitude soon gave way to the steamy heat of the jungle, suddenly we are in another Bolivia, a Bolivia that eventually reaches the Amazon basin.

imageThe sun is high overhead and our bellies have decided that it’s time for lunch, we pass a sign advertising a restaurant, and we follow it. We drive down a dirt track and through a very local village, over a concrete bridge and along another dirt track. After 200m we arrive at the restaurant that is attached to an enormous resort. We ask if we are able to camp inside the resort gates and received a firm ‘No’. Ok then, we’ll find somewhere else to camp. We asked a passer-by on the road and he directs us further down the dirt road to a place on the river, he also assured us it was quite safe and very beautiful place on the river. We follow his directions to the local village soccer pitch before administering a 50/ 50 navigation guess. We chose the right hand fork and off we drive, along the track and far away. The track narrowed somewhat after 1 km or so and we eventually reached a gate blocking the track. There is no way to turn around and even a 2000 point turn seems laborious and very unlikely, Russ can reverse all the way back, but thick vegetation obscured a lot of the track and doing so would take time, that would be our last option. Wire to the gate an ‘official’ looking sign in Español stated who knows what but Russ thought that it might say ‘Municipal water treatment plant’ or ‘Municipal roads quarry or ‘Municipal llama milking enclosure’ or something to that effect and on closer inspection he found that the gate was unlocked and could be opened… so Russ opened it and we drove through it in the vain hope of finding a camp site for the night. We had barely traveled 100m when two blokes stepped out of the bush and blocked our way, no firearms but both sporting machetes. Russ had a word and they politely, but quickly, helped us turn around and head back out the way we had come, they knew we posed no threat but all the same they were extremely keen for us to exit their property, afterwards we joked that we had stumbled across our first cocaine refinery and by the time we left the Yungas we were 99.8% sure we had and should have asked for a free sample.

imageSweat was running freely, the aircon was working hard and our very hungry bellies were not happy for the delay. We drove into the big resort we had recently passed, found a seat at the restaurant and sat down for a very uninspiring lunch. Back in the truck we conducted a quick and informal navigation check and found that we had missed the turnoff to Coroico by some 60 km back, but , another ‘track’ would get us to Coroico, a climb of 1.2 km virtually straight up. The GPS found the track, which is always a bonus, and off we set in search of a track highlighted on only a little GPS LCD screen. n the highway Russ saw two big birds flying overhead and swooping down over a bridge, is it a bird… no, is it a plane… no, they’re bloody Condors! Woohoo! A male and female Condor were demonstrating their aerial prowess to any who cared to watch and since no one was around to watch we stopped in the middle of the road and marveled at two of the largest creatures to fly this earth. We hastily changed camera lens and photographed our first Condors. Eventually they both landed on the bridge not 30m from us and posed for our National Geographic shot. This was to be the first of many Condor sightings that spanned as far south as Patagonia, Argentina.

imageFinding ‘the’ track on ‘the’ little GPS LCD screen that leads to Coroico proved far easier than finding the previously missed main road to Coroico some 70km back, the track was very well signposted which, unfortunately, was not a sign of the things to come. The track was paved in the rural Bolivian cobblestone style and in surprisingly good condition, what was not in good condition was the dense vegetation that blocked the entire track and the stupidly steep grades of the track. Clearly the road was not well used and during most of the 1 hour drive sight distance was barely past the bonnet, later we were told that the largest vehicle to travel up that particular track is normally a taxi van and we can certainly understand why. Note: When travelling to Coroico do not miss the main turn off, try not to cross a bridge at the end of a dirt track and if you reach a gate with an official looking sign don’t go through it… but if you do, ask the blokes with machetes for a free sample and directions back to the main turnoff.

imageTroy entered Coroico, in true V8 fashion, through the back streets instead of the main road. Locals stared at Troy as only locals are able to and as we rumbled in from the opposite direction as general traffic even the most astute stopped, gaped and guessed as to our origin. We parked in front of the Iglesia (church) and shut Troy down. A quick reconnoitre of the square soon revealed cerveza, carne (meat) and other green food for the days ahead. Anna had booked us into a hilltop Eco lodge, Sol Y Luna, which had come highly recommended. We found the lodge, parked Troy and made our way to reception, we introduced ourselves to the manager and began negotiations. We were given options for the different cabins, a map of the layout, pointed to the start path and let loose to select an appropriate cabin. What we didn’t know was that the lodge was spread over the steep hill-side and to view each cabin required intermediate grade mountaineering experience and equipment, well, no not really but if we didn’t have an initial wheeze before we got here this place certainly gave us one. Like like buying a house, we dismissed options from the gate and made a short list, we reviewed the short list, stalked the potentials and decided on a cabin further up the hill from the car park. Happy with our selection we quickly find ourselves unhappy with the prospect of humping/ carrying our equipment up the mountain to the cabin. Gratefully, and upon seeing our long faces, the manager offers the help of an employee who seems young and fit. Russ packs the pillows and blankets into a big bag that seems ‘big & heavy’ and loads the young bloke up with pots, pans and food, they make the first run up. Anna makes a run to the top with our clothes and electronics and stays to set up. Second run, the young bloke is loaded with 20 dozen cerveza’s in the cooler box, Russ follows with a fair load 12 litres of water. Back down at the truck Russ is puffing like a steam train and the young fella hasn’t even broken into a sweat so he gets to carry all of the soft drinks up and Russ brings up a few forgotten cables.

imageThe cabin is basic, warm and comfortable. It has and outdoor fire pit, shower and laundry/ wash point but its best feature is a balcony with the most amazing view of distant snow-capped peaks and towering slopes of the adjacent hillside. Rock formations directly across the valley and sweeping views of the floor below are dotted with villages, rivers and life in this region. Below the balcony is an organic coffee plantation and substitutes for a front garden. Huge shade trees are alive with jungle birds, insects and vegetation. The jungle is an amazing living and breathing entity, a complex association of flora and fauna that interacts in a complex dance of life and death. An important facet of that dance is performed by the insects and there is no greater variety of insects than in the Amazon jungle. Experiencing some of the wettest and most dense jungle on earth in the far north of Australia should have given an insight as to what to expect in the Amazon jungle, not a chance. Every flying, biting and stinging insect, without prejudice, just plain attacked us for no apparent reason, any piece of flesh left exposed was fair game and mauled without mercy, and insects here will sting or bite you just because they can.

DSC_8680On the first night Russ took a lot of hits to his back (that happens when you wear a singlet) but Anna faired far worse and was hit with about 50 bites per square inch over her arms and legs. The next morning Anna woke and was uncharacteristically weary, she was absolutely floored and felt as though a truck had hit her, no appetite and stopping for breath every couple of steps. Russ went into hyper alert and flagged it as potential Malaria having experienced its debilitating effects first hand in Africa. We had effective treatment drugs on hand but we needed serious medical help if worst case scenario eventuated. Russ prepared an evacuation plan but Malaria had still not been confirmed. Simply put, if Anna was not right the following morning or went downhill during the night Evacuation Plan: Anna was green light. Appropriate Resources were in place and in 24 hours or less Anna would be back in Oz and in treatment, No f**king around. Period.

imageThe following morning Anna was, thankfully, feeling better, she ate breakfast and drank her customary multiple cups of tea but was far from 100%, Russ decided to stay put until she had recovered and let her rest for another full day. The vast amount of insect bites she received had taken their toll, so for the rest of our stay she was coated liberally in repellent or covered up. All said and done it was a very sobering situation so please ask yourself this question: what do you/ we do if the shit really hits the fan and time is ticking? Russ had an Evac plan but didn’t rely on it entirely, he stressed hard that night.
After regained her feet again we lit the fire, along with 16 mosquito coils and enjoyed the afternoon. We stop and listen to our tropical surroundings, the bright and colorful unfamiliar tropical birds that inhabit the canopy, invisible frogs croaking their songs and the millions of insects making all manner of noise. The plants are colorful and vibrant and remind us of Costa Rica. Russ manages to relax, read a few chapters and recharge his batteries. The lodge has a hot tub so we both take the chance to soak in the hot water, enjoy the ambiance and look at the stars above the Bolivian Amazon, the hot water also soothed Anna’s many bites. As much as we would have liked to have stayed here for weeks, after 4 days we needed to keep moving and we still had to tackle the Death Road.

imageDeath Road etiquette 101 – Fact: The world’s most dangerous road, which is commonly referred to as the Death Road, contributes to 200-300 deaths per year, mostly dumb foreign cyclists who believe they have right of way, think they’re invincible and have the skill to fly.The Death Road, Statistics do not lie. The number of deaths per annum on this atrocious and dangerous section of Bolivia’s national highway is accorded to the treacherous condition of the notoriously narrow passageway cleaved through vertical rock face and hillside alike. Safe passing avoidance is measured in the millimetre, disaster is also measured in the same proportion. Documentaries and TV have portrayed this though fare as the most death-defying passage through the mountains of Bolivia

imageRuss had heard that if you drive the death road uphill and start in the morning you will avoid the hordes of cyclists that start their downhill run at around 10AM plus all downhill traffic gives way to uphill traffic, sweet. We packed up, loaded the truck and headed down to Coroico to refuel before our ‘dangerous’ drive back to La Paz. The death road proper begins by crossing a bridge in a grotty little town and begins as a wide and gently graded gravel road that meanders up past homes, cocoa farms and picturesque vantage points that showcase the Yungas. We pass farmers with huge tarpaulins spread and covered with cocoa leaves, drying for the next batch of paste or to sell at the local Mercado (market). Eventually the road narrows and the hillside closes in, after an hour or so the hill becomes embankment which in turn becomes a sheer rock face on both sides, up and down. One down side in driving uphill is that the driver is on the left or hill side and the sheer drop is on the right or passenger side. Hopefully at this stage you will be aware exactly where your vehicles front tyres track… this is not a road for ‘she’ll be right mate’ or guess work.

imageWe slowly climb and work our way along the road, the views are simply spectacular, the drop off even more spectacular and the vast number of crucifixes dotting the roadside staggering if not sobering. With headlights ablaze and horn blaring around every corner we reach a ‘bloody narrow’ section of the road, we are half expecting a cyclist’s to barrel headlong around corners at any minute, bounce off Troy and make an ill-fated flight to the bottom of the valley far far below. We see our first cyclist’s up ahead and no amount of headlight flashing or horn honking can ever alert an iPod listening, Lycra clad mountain biker whose concentration distance is no more than 40 feet in front of them to look forward and see immediate danger. Russ is intrigued as the adrenaline rush one must receive when broaching a corner at breakneck speed, encountering the front end of a brightly lit moving truck and having to make a life defining split second decision, the truck or the edge? More than one cyclist experienced that very same rush, but none bounced off Troy and none made an ill-fated flight. Russ was most amused when one female cyclist believed she had right of way on a section of road not much wider than the truck and wanted us to move over, we couldn’t and she came astonishingly close to not making it home that morning.

imageDriving the road doesn’t really require a great level of skill but it will help if you can manoeuvre your vehicle instinctively and be able to reverse a fair distance around corners using only the side mirrors. All said and done we loved the death road but thought some of the bush roads Russ grew up on, high up in the rugged Eastern Bay of Plenty bush in New Zealand could have given the ‘death road’ a run for its money. After stopping for a few photos we continued on and suddenly we reached the new highway, the death road was behind us and in an hour or so we would be back into the capital La Paz and ready for our next move.

Check out the Cocaine country and the world’s most dangerous road. pics:https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.533564253346018.1073741842.319040084798437&type=1

Machu Mission

310871_239023726152492_746005582_nThe journey to the ancient Inca citadel that is Machu Picchu is very easy if your wallet knows no restraint. The real challenge is to get to Machu Picchu without having your wallet or credit card raped. We spoke to numerous ‘English speaking’ tour operators during our investigation into every available option open to us, we also explained in great length that we were driving our own vehicle and did not require a bus, train or taxi from Cuzco. Having said that every ‘English speaking’ tour operator we spoke to said and did the exact same thing “Please look at our tour packages and select a tour, leaving from Cuzco, which will suit you”. Scratching a little deeper we found that a tour operator is not necessary, we didn’t need to speak Español and tour operators are programmed to regurgitate the same brain dead pitch. We did find out that Inca Rail sells train tickets departing from the few train stations along the line and that a limited number of entry tickets into Machu Picchu per day that are sold in Cuzco and buying in advance wasn’t a big issue due to the lower number of tourists in Cuzco at the time.

imageAnna had also heard that if you were on the first bus up to Machu Picchu at 05:20 AM, or walked up even earlier, and were first to enter the site that morning that the place is completely empty and is the only time to photograph the site devoid of guides & tourists. A clear cloudless morning and sunrise over the Machu Picchu is also something that will not be seen when the tourist train arrives from Cuzco at around 10 AM. After gleaning that piece of information we now had to work backwards from the 05:20 AM bus to boarding the train at our yet undecided town on the rail line to Machu Picchu.

Previous overlanders had driven to a nearby town, via a crap unpaved Inca road that we weren’t at all interested in driving, and then walked 4 or 5 kilometers along the rail line to the small town of Agua Caliente which is situated directly below Machu Picchu. Agua Caliente is also the final train stop from Cuzco and from where the buses up to Machu Picchu depart from. Another popular option is to walk in on an Inca trail over 3 or 4 days… for us, not a chance. The second to last stop before Agua Caliente is the Inca trail tourist town of Ollantaytambo and we had a GPS reference for a hotel that caters for overlanders, perfect…. Apparently. Getting up to Machu Picchu first thing in the morning meant that we had to spend a night in Agua Caliente and get up AM early to be on the first bus up to the site… ok we are still working backwards from the 0600 AM entry into Machu Picchu to the 0520 AM first bus ride up. Again Anna came up trumps and booked us a hotel in Agua Caliente for the night and all was looking good until it was time to decide on which train to board from Ollantaytambo, we could pay more for an afternoon train and depart Ollantaytambo at 4PM for the 2 hour ride but we decided on the 9 PM train to save a few bucks, plus it gave us the day to ply the Sacred Valley of the Incas and see the sights. Armed with this information and feeling chuffed we set a day and purchased train and Machu Picchu entry tickets… we did, however, forget to buy the bus tickets which would later nip us in the butt.

imageThe next day we said our goodbyes to Jane and Jack and retrieved our truck from a now empty camp ground. The camper was low on propane gas and we had to tramp across to the other side of Cuzco to the filling plant before starting our mission to Machu Picchu proper. The first stop to Ollantaytambo is the historic market town of Pisac where tourists can buy every tourist gift, trinket or alpaca product known to man, Anna surprised herself and didn’t shop too hard at the market. We meandered up into the valley and arrived at our Hotel as the sun was starting to hide behind the steep hills and mountain peaks high above the valley floor. Our camping location couldn’t be better and we had a few hours up our sleeve before we had to make our way to the train station bound for Agua Caliente and Machu Picchu the next morning. The tourist trap town of Ollantaytambo was full of mountain boot clad, walking stick swinging and Gore-Tex wrapped tourists with huge packs ,purchased in Manhattan but designed for Antarctica, all the better for the local sandal wearing porters that would be carrying them as their clients carry a day pack or raincoat or nothing at all. We walked to the main square and found a cool bar/ restaurant that had cold drinks, Anna was detoxing and drank only Juice to be the responsible mission commander and to ensure everything went to plan, Russ drank only 2 (litros) cerveza’s taking one for the team before we wandered back to pack and sort for the next day. Anna had planned our meals and fired up the stove and cooked beef, chicken and chorizo into meal packs for us, eating and drinking at Machu Picchu is expensive and prices are in US$ which says it all.

DSC_7181At 830 PM we hailed a tuk-tuk and made for the train station and if we thought we were the only ones on the late train to Agua Caliente we were wrong, the train was full of Peruvian and foreign tourists alike but it was the European tourists and no finger pointing (the Germans) that were the arrogant, boisterous and drunk. Two hours is a long time in a carriage with a lively drunken German ‘Frau’ whose coarse, but shrill, laugh was not quite enough to make a man’s ears bleed… but pretty bloody close (the next morning we saw her in the bus line looking like a ‘walk of shame victim’ complete with bed hair and pillow lines on her face, we chuckled at her both feeling bright eyed and bushy tailed). Russ did notice that the train was surprisingly new compared to old rattler he’d endured the last time, he also noticed that the track condition hadn’t changed and is like being on a very old and loose roller coaster ride, without the vertical movement. Eventually we made Agua Caliente and two tired and weary overlanders made our way up to our room for 5.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep for a 0430 AM wake up call to be first on the bus. The 5.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep soon became 35 minutes of uninterrupted sleep as trains and carriages were shunted past our window well into the wee hours of the morning. At 0430 AM the alarm went off and we fell out of bed in complete bewilderment, WTF! Oh, that’s right we’re off to Machu Picchu this morning but we can’t repeat what Russ’s bleary reply to that was. True to our word we arrived at the bus stop first in line but we still didn’t have a bus ticket and it’s a long walk up for the unwary. The ticket booth for the bus tickets is supposed to open at 0500 AM, it didn’t until 0510. Russ and a guide watched for 10 minutes as the ticket booth chic groomed her hair, face, eyebrows, mustache etc before she opened shop imageand bus tickets were purchased. Tickets in hand Russ returned to the buses and we waited for the buses to warm up and start moving. The line by this time extended up the road and far away and still droves of tourists could be seen walking the road up to Machu Picchu. Anna sat in pole position on the bus and in the pre-dawn gloom the first bus left the station and we were finally on our way to Machu Picchu.

imageFirst light hadn’t yet reached the valley floor as the bus crossed the entry bridge and began to labor up the switch backs to the Inca citadel. A third of the way up grey changed to green and detail began to be seen as mountains and valleys entered the new day, the day also began with bus horns warning those on foot to get off the road or become another ‘tourist accident’ tragedy. Anna was the first off the bus and 10th in line behind skinny fit Euro’s clad in all manner of attire more suitable for the Blue Oyster Men’s bar on beach party night. There is something very wrong seeing grown men peel off sweaty wet skin tight cycle pants and thermal shirts over mountain boots and change in plain sight at that hour of the morning, not cool at all.

imageBeing one of the first dozen visitors to enter Machu Picchu at dawn is something we had never really thought about until we were actually one of them. The entry had changed from the last time Russ was there and there was no crowd to follow to the entry proper, the people before us walked off in completely different directions so we followed the main path up the hill to the ‘Guard House’, set high above the citadel that had kept watch over Machu Picchu for all those centuries. The ‘photo opportunity’ platform is also up there and people were starting to swarm for their ‘empty Machu Picchu at dawn’ pictures. We set up and fired off our pics and decided to leave the growing & jostling crowd and explore while it was still relatively empty.

imageThe sun had risen above the surrounding mountains and there was not a cloud in the sky, snow-capped peaks could be seen in the distance and Machu Picchu was revealed in all of its glory. At this point the entire extent of the citadel, its proximity within the mountains and why it was built here became evidently clear. Surrounded on all sides by enormous mountains, a river which sweeps and curves around three sides far below providing a natural barrier and one, very easily defended, entry path in makes Machu Picchu the perfect mountain fortress. Eventually you will see the small heard of resident llamas while wandering through the roofless buildings and empty halls and pathways, we stumbled upon them almost straight away and had great delight photographing them in the new rays of the morning. Russ was going to attempt to pet one but he wasn’t sure what happens when a ‘cranky llama attacks’ and didn’t want to find out, his mate Dave back in Brisbane had previously been ‘rattled’ by one here when he in a self-inflicted delicate state so caution was advisable. Being alone and free to explore Machu Picchu at leisure was a privilege and a pleasure and after snapping 999 999 odd photos we decided to find a viewpoint to sit at for morning tea. We found a great place and settled imagein for brunch, but half the crowd though it was also a great spot for photos and crowded in and over us. It is very hard not to kick a person off an edge when he/she stands on your feet and then lunch whilst taking a photo, Russ displayed great discipline and physical restraint when this occurred… we won’t say too much about his verbal though. Some tourists just don’t know how to travel nicely.

imageThe first train from Cuzco had obviously arrived and the photo op platform had a queue that stretched back to the entry stall. We found a great place, far from the crowds, to sit, look at and absorb our surroundings, we sat there for an hour or two before the inevitable happened and people started to park next to us. The sun was high and hot and the crowd was still growing so we asked ourselves how long can you really spend here and decided that we had had enough and lunch back at Agua Caliente sounded good. The bus down was full and uneventful and we found a suitable restaurant in the sun and settled in to wait for our train. Russ decided he had a taste for cerveza and kept the waitress busy while local traditional Peruvian bands entertained the seated tourists and sold their CD’s, Russ bought 2 CD’s but doesn’t remember it although he did sleep well on the train back to Ollantaytambo. At Ollantaytambo station we jumped another tuk-tuk and made for our camp to ditch our kit before heading to our cool bar/ restaurant for imagedinner. The town was very quiet on the short walk back to camp and the lure of our comfortable and warm bed quickened the pace, the day had been long and full and it was time for rest and sleep, tomorrow we will reflecting on the journey that was the Machu Mission.

 Check out the Machu Mission Pics: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.516219561747154.1073741838.319040084798437&type=3

The Gringo Trail to Cuzco

images (1)The Peruvian capital, Lima is a heaving mass of buses, trucks, cars, people, beasts of burden drawing carts and confusing & very chaotic roads. We have driven through nearly every national capital on our way down through the Americas and every country believes their capital city has the worst traffic. Congratulations Lima, your traffic is as crazy-dangerous as it gets, never have we been cut off and beeped at by so many learner drivers or abused by women drivers, complete with children standing on the back seats, about our ‘inconsiderate’ driving… when in Rome. Now consider Brisbane, Sydney or any other big city where no one can drive very well in the wet and include peak hour traffic, heavy rain and then add 80 km/h of speed into the mix, now close one eye, text your mate and step on the gas, welcome to Lima.

imageWe made only one ‘navigation error’ en-route to the city which is pretty bloody good considering the lack of signs and the mad, mad traffic. After a nail biting eternity of negotiating Lima we arrived at the cool & chic suburb of Mirafloras, where everything was calm, western and very normal. Our overnight camp was at the Hitch Hikers Inn or more precisely the concrete car park/ common area/ piss-up area which had room for two, may be three vehicles at a pinch and a half dozen or so tables with umbrella’s for the partying backpackers. After we had set up camp Russ ‘attempted’ to memorise the local map and led the exploration party of two into the local area in search of a restaurant for the evening meal. The Miraflores local is positively saturated with restaurants and fast food outlets, fellow foreigners were abundant and familiar western brands and logos were plastered on most buildings or store fronts. Not too far from the Inn was another long string of fine dining restaurants similar to an Asian walking street, we aptly renamed the restaurant strip ‘gringo ally’ after a similar walking street in San Pedro, Guatemala with the same name and feel.

imageOur campsite was in full swing when we returned later in the evening, a cacophony of a dozen drunken languages greeted us as we made ready for bed and a silent understanding passed between us as we both nodded and agreed that we were staying for one night only.The next morning all was quite in the camp and we packed up and drove straight to Toyota for new brakes and a new set of big rubber all round.The usual 2 hours at the mechanics extended into 7 and late in the afternoon we also found a set of tires at the right price and had them fitted. The credit card machine at the tire shop absolutely hated our card and refused to work for us, no amount of swiping, inserting or swearing at it would get it to work. Eventually we drove to the nearest major bank and withdrew the cash, $100 maximum at a time in $20 bills. By this stage it was dark, we were in a very dodgy part of town and we still had to reach our secure 24 hr service station for the night south of the city. Twelve transactions later we handed over a wad of cash and were on our way. The drive into the city was nothing compared to the chaos during the night drive out, we have witnessed a lot of ultra stupid driving techniques during our travels, Lima didn’t disappoint and kept the dumb & dangerous drivers doing all sorts of interesting things until the streetlights thinned and the road became a highway again. After 40 odd minutes the GPS indicated our stop was near and we pulled over for a closer inspection, a gas attendant pointed us in the right direction and we nestled in among the big rigs that had stopped for imagethe night. Anna spotted a small restaurant nearby that was still open which served a surprisingly good meal. Needless to say the night was noisy with the coming and goings and thankfully the trucks on both sides of us didn’t start up and move during the night. Russ had a chat to the security guard who assured us we were OK for the night but warned us not to wander around during the night as it was dangerous to do so.

imageEarly the next morning we packed down and set our sights on Cuzco and back into the Andean mountains. The drive to Cuzco is not a short drive, approximately 1200 km of switchbacks, high mountain passes and alto plateau’s. After assessing the distance and topography we divided the journey into 3 achievable legs. The first leg was Lima to the Nazca Lines and our first night stop in Nazca, not Nascar where a lot of cars race which confused Anna for a bit. The highway scenery involved a lot of sand, long straight roads and more sand & rock. We did pass through a town called Sacramento and photographed the sign as we started in Sacramento, USA all those months ago.

imageThe Nazca lines loomed… or rather the signs for the Nazca Lines did and then suddenly we were driving through them but couldn’t see anything but rock and sand. An old rusting tower beside the highway provided the best immediate view so we scampered up behold the famous & mysterious lines. Ideally, a flight over the Nazca lines will afford the best views or a trek up the adjacent mountain would do the same trick but on our tower we saw the frog and a lizard and some other shape we couldn’t identify properly without taking LSD or mushrooms. Ten minutes later we were back on the road to Nazca town. Nazca town was not too far away and we had camp set up by mid-afternoon in a Swiss owned Hotel that offered a nice grassed area for overlanders. There is not much to say about Nazca town and apart it being near some long & shallow trenches on a nearby plateau it really has nothing else to offer… apart from the turnoff to Cuzco.  Later that afternoon an older German couple pulled in alongside us in a typical European motor-home  they could have parked anywhere on the abundance of grass but somehow they stopped within pissing distance of our camp. We exchanged brief pleasantries and cracked a cold beer as we watched the setting sun over the sandy hills and listened to light aircraft coming and going on the Nazca Lines flight circuit. The following morning we had another brief chat with the Germans before carefully extracting ourselves from a potentially long conversation.

imageAfter refueling and finding morning tea we set off on the road proper to Cuzco  The road had the same topography as the road up to the Cordillera Blanca’s, passing through valleys of sand and rock before climbing over High Mountain passes and switch back after switchback after switchback. The vegetation reappeared again as we gained altitude, hardy mountain tussock grass grew to small weathered shrubs and then tree’s started appearing in clumps and then forests. During one valley crossing Anna squealed in delight as she spotted her first wild Alpaca and then another and another. Our overnight stop was still 100 odd kilometers away as the sun began to dip, we just so happened to drive past a suitable roadside hotel that let us camp in their secure car park for the night, complete with guard Llama’s? A llama decided to sleep next to the truck throughout the night and keep watch over us, I don’t know what sort of noise they make when on guard or what they do when they attack but we felt safer knowing it was out there. There was also a guard imagepeacock, that just puffed his feathers out and looked good and a pack of German Shepard’s that only marked our tires, barked at birds and chased each other. The next morning our host explained that motorcycle tours frequently stopped there on their way to Cuzco as many as 20 or 30 at a time and also elements of the Dakar Rally stayed there during the race.

imageLeg three was the final run into Cuzco proper and preparation for Mission Machu Picchu. Deeper into the Andean mountains we drove and at some point we realised that sooner or later the mountains won’t get any higher and that the Amazon is going to appear. High up in the Alto Plateau, after climbing for 2 days, the highway crested in altitude a touch over 15000 ft and Troy seemed somewhat sluggish, at the time we were both gasping just sitting in the cab letting Russ’s right foot do all the work. The kilometers kept ticking over and eventually familiar landmarks started appearing that Russ recalled from the last time he was here some 12 years prior.

imageThe ancient Inca capital of Cuzco suddenly appeared in panoramic glory through a huge gap in concrete block roadside wall, we’d made it, woohoo! The first task in hand was to place a call to our Cuzco contact, Jane, the big sister of one of Russ’s old rugby mates (viva Le mud crabs)  back in Brisbane, Australia. We had arrived a day earlier than planned and Jane wasn’t quite ready for us so we drove straight into the thick of it and made our way to the Plaza de Aramas, the central tourist quarter of Cuzco  Directly above Plaza de Aramas, high up on the hill is the long since demolished Inca temple of Saksaywaman (pronounced as “sexy woman”, Russ’s also remembered how to pronounce that from 12 years ago too) and adjacent to that was our overland camp where we were bound to run into other overlanders… and we weren’t disappointed. As the sun began to set we were suddenly surrounded by 3 French overlanding rigs, and wouldn’t you know it, yet again, one of them decided to park mere feet away from us until Anna told him in ‘plain words’ to move his vehicle further away so we could at least open our doors. We endured one night in the camp before moving into Casa de Jane for a couple of nights of luxury in Jane’s large and magnificent house. Jane owns a café in Cuzco by the name of ‘Jacks’, the food is brilliant and the coffee is just… how do you say in Español? Muy buen. Jack is also her 11 year old son who wants to be on an International Flight Crew, we have never seen such drive, enthusiasm and determination in a boy so young to achieve his imagegoal, aim high Jack and fly long and far mate and we also hope to see you working on a international flight somewhere in the future. Jane took us under her wing and gave us the lowdown on how Cuzco ticks. We did the obligatory walking tour and shopped and then pub crawled before wheezing our way back up to Jane’s place.

imageOur next task after exploring Cuzco was to organise ourselves to explore Machu Picchu. After asking every English speaking person (which is nearly everyone in the old quarter) which is the easiest and cheapest way to visit the old Inca citadel and then being told the best way is to pay a stack of cash, get on the train AM early and do it in one day before returning in the late afternoon. Bugger that, Russ did that same tour last time he went to Machu Picchu and there was no way he was doing it like that again. After a couple of frosty Cusqueña cerveza’s at Norton’s or was it the Irish Bar?? We decided that to explore Machu Picchu on a ‘Global Inc Safari Tour’ so Anna lead the charge which thus became the ‘Machu Mission’. 

Check out the Peru pics: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.512628885439555.1073741837.319040084798437&type=1

Panting in Peru

imageLandscapes should not change as dramatically as they have from Macarã, our Ecuadorian border town crossing, to the Peruvian coastal town of Huanchaco.  Perched in the lower southern highlands of Ecuador, Macarã is neck deep in lush native South American bush. Not long after the border into Peru the lush mountain ranges lose moisture and are replaced by gigantic sand dunes and rock as far as the eye can see, some of which resembled a scene in Star Wars.  We felt like we were back driving the wild west of Kenya or Tanzania. The stark, harsh landscapes, mud huts and villages strewn over the vast nothingness.

imageWe progressed into a headwind to the Pacific Ocean, we had not seen the Pacific since Panama City. During the afternoon we drove up the main drag of Huanchaco, our overnight stop at a beach side car park complete with a ‘paid for’ 24 hour guard. The beautiful white sand of Huanchaco, with a lazy left off the pier lures local & foreign surfers in steamers and beach ready bikini girls to its beach. Our days had been long since the border and we unanimously wanted a decent restaurant meal and a cold local beer. Our first Peruvian meal, complete with frosty Cusqueña Cerveza, was at the first restaurant that had a sunny beer garden. We devouring a ‘meat fest’ which included the obligatory ‘salad and sopa’ (soup) and our first taste of the fluffy alpaca! It wasn’t long before the salt air started calling and made our way to the beach front for a few days at the ocean!

imageThe beach side car park was pretty hard to miss and we completed a lap of the beach in Troy. Restaurants and beach side apartments lined the northern end of the street while young Peruvians on the fire water, hanging out beside cars peppered the south stretch towards town. We carefully selected a site that ticked as many boxes, as can be ticked for a public parking lot, and after finding and paying a local security guard a few Soles to keep an eye out during the night we set chairs facing west and settled in for another Pacific sunset.

imageIn this part of Peru the midday weather offers sun, sun and sun but during the afternoon the weather is for cold and wet, typical Peruvian coastal weather.The sandy coastline rises from the cold Pacific Ocean to the foothills of the Andes and without not so much as a blade of lifeless grass in some areas. From the foothills the hills soar before reaching far & high up into the mountains of the Andes. The barren coastal topography of mist, sand & rock and mountain after mountain continues for thousands of kilometers along the Peruvian Northern and Southern coast and extends short of Santiago, Chile.

imageThis was not the typical Peru we were expecting and the when we awoke to early morning fog/ mist/ thick low cloud and decided to leave the cold, misty, sandy coast for the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca and the mountain town of Caraz. The Cordillera Blanca, Spanish for “White Range”, is a mountain range in the Ancash Region of Peru and part of the larger Andes range. It includes 33 major peaks over 5,500 metres (18,040 ft) high in an area 21 kilometers wide and 180 kilometers long. We were keen to trek deep in to Peru and felt like some adventure in Troy after the last 10 days of solid driving and not much exploration in Ecuador.

imageWe left the coast, after a shopping fest in our last big chain supermarket, stocking up on all things imported and expensive. The drive turned from smooth tar to gravel and then dirt and we had reached the Canyon De Pato. The mostly rocky canyon was formed by the river where the north end of the Cordillera Negra range (to the west) converges with the Cordillera Blanca mountain range (to the east). These two Andean ridges run generally parallel for nearly 140 km from south of the city of Huaraz northward to the Cañón; The highway along this entire route is unpaved and has 35 one-lane tunnels before it emerges onto the western face of the Cordillera Negra high above the town of Huallanca.

imageThis particular canyon was our route up and into the snow-capped Andes, something we had not seen before and were rugged up, ugg boots on ready to spy these beauties for ourselves. After 3-4 hours of driving and winding through this spectacular sheer cliffs and sharp mountain peaks we started scouting our Canyon bush camp for a night in the wild. We had two GPS way points for camping were stored in the Garmin, but we didn’t count on them both having been washed away by landslides, but we did have a plan C, the mountain town of Caraz that was only an hour away. The climbing further into the canyon eventually brought us to small mountain town and our first real obstacle of the dying afternoon. The only bridge in town, which we need to cross, was being replaced and looked far from being finished. There is nothing quite like driving a very long & remote road to a bridge that should be there, but isn’t  Russ had a quick chat to the lead engineer, who spoke English, and explained to Russ how to get to the alternative route and up our last mountain. The alternative route was a bonafide goat track from start to finish and under the imagesetting sun, perfect conditions for another decent adrenaline rush for both of us. We were assured that the track was best traveled now, on dusk, because bus, taxi and general traffic was done for the day. In saying that, now picture an oncoming, downhill truck, us and a single lane mountain track in the dark. After two of these encounters my balls feel bigger and we still don’t know how close we came to driving off the edge.

imageDarkness and the track in our headlights gave way to lifeless mud huts and then into a small rural town at the top of the mountain, we drove past a farmer’s pub in full swing and had to bust through and out run drunken local farmers trying to grab on for a lift and certain pain or embarrassment. A bewildered, but helpful, Policiá directed us toward Caraz until a fork in the road that threw us straight into a game of paper, scissors or rock. A nice taxi driver just so happened to drive past in his truck not more than 30 seconds later and happened to be going our way, lead on Amigo.  The Hostel took a bit of finding in the dark, I winged a parked tuk tuk’s side mirror outside the local discotek/ tradition pan pipe music ho-down and we were finally able to shut off the engine and pop up for the night and hour or so after dark.

imageThe next morning Anna had found us a lake high up in the Cordilleras, we took stock of where we were and then drove high into the mountains of the Huascaran National Park and up to Laguna Paron. This was the first time we had seen snow-capped mountains and needless to say coming from Aussie we were very excited to be there. Laguna Paron is simply stunning, the lake is nestled beneath Peru’s highest peaks and it is fed directly from an adjacent glacier. When mornings are still the reflections of the mountains across the lake rival the same scene anywhere else in the world. Laguna Peron itself is at 12000 ft, the surrounding peaks summit up to 22 000 ft.

imageGetting to the lake itself was no problem except for the skinny one horse (donkey) mountain road and outrageously steep switch backs barely large enough for a 4×4 truck. The road up wound through local farms, complete with hill side crops of corn, maize and lots of other green stuff. After we drove through the Park gates the crops gave way to bush as we climbed further up and into the clouds. The road crested to a small plateau as we breached the cloud layer and finally, far above us in the afternoon sunshine, there was the Cordillera Blanca in all of its Andean splendor. To quickly digress, as a person who knows a bit about roads, it is worth a mention when a mountain road is carved through rock up a mountain and the impact of the construction is negligible to the surrounding environment, this is one such road.

imageWe arrived in the mid-afternoon amid blue skies and sunshine. We settled in and contemplated a bit of tanning time but by the time we set the chairs the clouds had rolled over, the temperature had plummeted and it was no longer sociable to sit outside. After 5 or so minutes of persevering we moved inside for shelter which is just as well because no sooner had we mover in then it started to rain and I’m not talking any ordinary rain, but Peruvian Andean freezing cold nearly ice rain. The camper internal thermometer swung toward the zeros so we set the couch with blankets and pillows and hunkered down in warmth and watched a bit of telly. The last time we had been at a lake was in Columbia where we experienced altitude illness, this was as high as we had been and even going for a pee took effort, we have never huffed and puffed lying down in front of TV as we did that night. The night was freezing and inside the camper it may have been slightly colder, we had layers on for bed and snuggled in our super cosy and comfortable bed and panted ourselves to sleep. Its nights like these we reflect on our time with a roof tent in Africa, and marvel at our home on wheels. Being tucked inside our Penthouse with all the comforts of our apartment in Bronte we smile at how much we love our life on the road. ‘Turn the furnace up Russ!’

imageThe next morning the sun was out and not a cloud in the sky, and as usual not a sole to be seen. The mountains looked close enough to touch but we knew better than to attempt to walk up another mountain and tucked our boots further to the back of the shoe cupboard. After our morning brews it was decided to move camp to another location further along the Cordilleras. At the next Park gate we told that the fees had increased to crazy tourist price park entry fee and the guards had a chuckle at Russ after he told them he had to talk to the girl about these high fees before paying, apparently Peru mountain rangers don’t need to discuss the big issues with the wife. We decided to save our cash and proceeded to a Private Lodge for well-earned rest and relaxation. The drive from Laguna Peron to the lodge, via the expensive National Park, was simply stunning, snow-capped peak after snow-capped peak could be seen before we again climbed to our Inn and rest stop for a few days.

imageThe Way Inn is high up in the foothills of the Cordilleras with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. Rain was threatening on the trail up and as we drove into the lodge it began to spit, not long after the drizzle came and then the rain in a steady cadence. Our idyllic mountain side retreat, complete with sweeping alpine vistas was not to be as the weather closed in and the cold also became wet. Not to be beaten we set the couch and settled in for a few cosy days off watching movies, playing cards and doing nothing and just marveling at the tranquility of the Cordillera Blanca’s.

imageThe next stop on the route is Lima, Peru’s capital on the coast, so we set the GPS to Lima and put the pedal to the metal. A few towns into the journey an old lady had a huge steaming pot of something good, good turned out to be pork on a spit sliced appropriately and served in a bread roll with a funky spicy salad. Absolutely delicious and at 1 Peruvian Sole each a dead set bargain, 20 please.

imageThe descent in altitude was felt immediately, Russ was no longer panting when adjusting the electric side mirrors and we were able to climb in and out of the truck without taking a breather half way in. The drive down to Lima from the Cordilleras is a truly spectacular road, the descent seemed to last all day and the landscape slowly morphed from snow to sand.

After the peace, tranquility and huge space of the Cordillera Mountains, Lima was like driving into the truly crazy mad Mombasa traffic, but on steroids. It’s hard to say which city we have driven in has the worst/ mad/ crazy driving in the world, Bangkok? Nairobi? Brisbane when it rains? All we can say is we’ve never experienced anything like driving in Lima…Russ loved it and Anna just closes her eyes and hums along to the music.

imageThe route to the Miraflores, a beach side suburb of Lima and our next stop, was never more confusing and chaotic as it was that afternoon, we cocked up our navigation only once, before miraculously navigating our way through the heaving, antisocial, shithouse Lima peak hour traffic to the Hostel as if on rails. We pulled into the Hitch Hikers Hostel, which was only just large enough to park us, and suddenly found ourselves boxed into a concrete urban jungle, far from the snow and mountains.

Check out the Panting in Peru Pics: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.508826142486496.1073741833.319040084798437&type=1

The Equatorial Ecuador…Cheap gas but no time

DSC_5641On the eve of Good Friday we were very close to the Colombia/ Ecuador border and decided to push on and camp the night at a suggested hotel some 500m from the border. The sun had set and darkness quickly descended on us, driving after dark is something we do not like to do. The road twisted and turned high up amongist the escarpments and the truck drivers executed even more dangerous maneuvers in the dark as they did during the day. We finally approached the border town of Ipiales at around 7 pm and floundered around for a bit trying to find the wayward hotel after our GPS had a google maps moment and led us up the garden path. We asked local after local for directions to the frontera where the hotel was located and with a bit of Spanglish, luck and luck we finally saw the hotel sign and pulled in with relief that we had made it. Feeling more than a little jaded Russ did his usual thing at reception in getting us sorted for our car park camping. His usual ‘thumbs up’ signal on return was replaced with a frown and the big thumbs down. After animated negotiations with a manager who changed her mind minute by minute, the end result was no camping and top dollar only for a hotel room for the night, happy Easter! Russ told her to jam it where the sun doesn’t shine, albeit politely with the help of another guest who translated it for him verbatim. We again hit the road again and found a huge truck park not 200m from the hotel where truck owners can park for the night in a secure compound. We were greeted by the owners, a family complete with kids, dogs and sheep. For a small fee he agreed to let us park up next to the trucks and buses, (and sheep) and camp securely for the night. We can’t say this was our most glamorous spot, but in desperate times, it calls for desperate measures! Feeling exhausted and frazzled we ate our spag Bol in silence and hit bed early in prep for our Good Friday border crossing.

imageWe hope being a holiday, and an Easter holiday at that our crossing into Ecuador might be quick and painless and we were right. Our shortest crossing yet of 55 mins. We passed through immigration & customs on both side with no queues or hassles. By 10am we were free to go and ready to charge through our 16th country, Ecuador!

imageWith our big haul ahead to Argentina we made the decision to skip any touring in this country and agreed on only 2 stops. Like all the other overlanders before us we could not pass up stopping in Otavalo, South Americas market capital. The Saturday markets are famous for all things woolen  alpaca, leather etc and at a very cheap price. We took the chance to do some early Christmas shopping and stock up on alpaca scarfs for everyone :) After finding our camp for the weekend we tuned into relax mode, plugged in our batteries and hit the markets with a big list and empty backpack. This traditional little town was fascinating to observe on market day. Ladies in traditional dress, men in the local hats and imagefamilies from all around hawking their wares. Brightly colored fabrics were scattered everywhere, fluffy hats and matching scarfs, socks for every size were sprawled on every table and the poncho selection was overwhelming. After 4 hours wondering the huge sprawling stalls we had enough shopping and were ready to retire to camp, stoke a fire and enjoy a night under the stars.

imageWe packed up the camper after a well earned few days off and hit the road towards  Quito, the Ecuadorian capital city and home to family friends Clara and Jaime who had invited us to visit and stay the night and enjoy their company and a meal. We spent a lovely night meeting and chatting to our new friends. Clara proudly gave us a tropical fruit lesson complete with taste tastings. We felt ready to hit the Mercado with a whole new buying confidence. After a cosy night sleep we awoke to a traditional Colombian style breakfast, scrambled eggs with tomato and onion, served with homemade traditional bread, topped off with a cup of real hot chocolate!

imageJamie and Clara lived in an amazing adobe cluster of houses, imaging a smurf house the size of an English country mansion. We explored the vast property and marveled at the unique architecture, spaces and colors. With many thanks given to our most awesome hosts we set off south with a big drive ahead.

From Quito our plan was to head straight towards the border, a mere 700kms away. We would bypass all the attractions along the way in anticipation of crossing into Peru and having more time to explore our next 4 big countries.

imageThe 3 days drive was long and hard. The roads were mountainous and stunning to pass through. The towering mountains and never-ending valleys were breathtaking to admire as we flew through village after village to the remote border town of Macara. We camped  at gas stations and lived on road side roasted pork. We went to sleep in anticipation of our first camp in Peru and a nice hot shower!

imageThe last big country we had  traversed through was Mexico and after all of the relatively small central American countries we had driven through we were excited to be at the  border of another huge and exciting country. We were nearly ready to hit Peru!

imageWe arrived at the border early, ready to put a few kilometers between the border and us, exiting Ecuador was painless and very quick… Entering Peru was quick and painless but the temporary vehicle permit  was another matter. The senior DIAN (bloke who issues the temporary vehicle permit) official didn’t look a day under 87 years old, complete with coke bottle lens glasses and IT skills to match. There was another younger… More competent official there but it wasn’t his computer day today. After 90 minutes of two finger typing, cocking up my vehicle details and general ‘don’t really know what the heck I’m doing’ mouse clicking I’m silently pleading to the younger chap to take over and get me out of here, by the pained expression on his face he heard me but as I said it was not his day on imagesthe computer and grandpa was not going to let a computed defeat him. The computer did eventually defeat him and we settled on a hand written amendment to my vehicle permit complete with, finger prints, highlighter and every stamp on offer in office. With vehicle permit in hand we were pointed in the direction of Lima and let loose in Peru in search of Incas!

Check out the Ecuador pics: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.503944372974673.1073741832.319040084798437&type=1

Darien who?

Men tug on winch cables to inch a Land Rover up a steep jungle ridge.International airports can be an integral necessity when travelling from one country to the next, especially when large bodies of water or land separate you from your destination. Our need to use an international airport was a little different and involved a 100 km or so of rivers & jungle. The Pan American Highway ends in Panama and restarts 100 km further south in Colombia. This gap is known as the ‘Darien Gap’, we don’t know who this ‘Darien’ chap is but we do know that the gap is a very hostile, very dangerous swampy jungle haven for bandidos and guerrillas and also separated us from our next continent. I was keen to have a crack at the gap and save our shipping container cash for shopping or rum until I learnt the British Army had crossed it, over a couple of months, with complete logistical, mechanical, tactical and likely divine support… OK I hadn’t figured out the river crossings yet but we’ve got 4×4, a thumping V8, air conditioning, sandwiches and a map.

imagesWe walked into an airport for the first time in 4 months, despite having traveled through 7 Central American countries it was a strange yet familiar feeling. Lugging backpacks to the counter, queuing with other overdressed jet setters and waiting at the crowded boarding gate we were sharply reminded of the monotony of air travel as opposed to our rugged adventures dodging chicken buses  trucks and touts at overland borders.

The flight from Panama City to Cartegena was forced on us when loading Troy into a container suddenly became a reality. Originally we were to sail to Colombia but we literally ran out of time to make a booking on a sail boat and hit the high seas through the San Blas Islands en route to Colombia, a much more exciting travel option. As we were served a stale chicken roll and a juice box shortly after take-off, we sighed and thought of Troy! Plus the flight was dry, boo, nothing like orange juice or water to quench a thirst only cerveza can quench.

images (1)After a stopover in Bogota to change flights for our domestic to Cartegena we were hit with realization we would be on foot for the next week. The weather in Cartegena was 35° C and high humidity, this was going to be a long week! We landed with an Aeroflot worthy thud, the 1st year apprentice pilot announced “Welcome to Cartegena  and we grudgingly grabbed our luggage and join the herd exiting the airport to the cab queue and ultimately our hotel. The heat slapped us in the face like a set of post-match footy socks as we scanned the taxi dash for the air con button, not a chance and the windows came down as again we aren’t in Troy and it’s time to suck it up.

imageFan in hand and camera set to action we head off for our first day of sightseeing in Cartegena  A fairy tale city of romance, legends, and epic battles. The old city is superbly preserved, beautifully set within an impressive 13 km of centuries old fortified colonial stonewalls. Having read and heard the city was a fascinating place to explore we were not disappointed. The heat was truly oppressive and we managed to stroll the streets one by one, soaking up the character and architecture of every building. We explored churches, Convents, forts and plazas. This most photogenic town tells a different story around every corner and our captured images could likely whisper a million tales.

DSC_3870We missed Troy, Penthouse and being on the road, but we also once again enjoyed the small life luxuries, like our own bathroom, flushing toilets, cable TV and high-speed Wi-Fi. We admit to a few days off, shut away in the cool of our room watching movie after movie, remaining in pj’s from AM to PM. Unlike in Boquete, Panama we had an excuse for our laziness in the form of street food tummy bug, having our very own toilet was a blessing!

imageOur thoughts often turned to Troy, alone on the container ship sailing the Caribbean seas, braving the elements. We pondered on his safety and egged him on for an early arrival into the ports of Cartegena  Then we finally got the call, the ship had landed and Russ could start the 2 day process of getting him, unloaded, cleared and processed into Colombia. We would like to say this was a breeze, as we could for Panama, however the process is slow. English speaking Colombian shipping agents are non-existent and our eagerness and frustration was high. With a rumbling belly and a sweaty brow Russ took off each day for a full 8 hours of process until on the 3rd day he triumphantly returned with Troy and Penthouse in one piece and in full working order. We had our green light to take on South America, our 5th continent. Starting with Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

imageAfter being in a sweaty smelly city on foot for a week we were keen for a few days at the beach before we hit the highways and started to explore deep and wide and all that Colombia has to offer. After a full day of driving north we arrived at our destination, Tayrona, on sunset and listened to the sound of waves as we cracked our first beer and celebrated being back on the road. The weather was gloomy and the sun refused to make an appearance, but we decided to relax none the less. It felt good sleeping in our bed and cooking in our kitchen again. With our camp chairs set into the white sand we plotted the map and marked our destinations, the options for adventure and exploration are endless, but we settled on a route and loaded up the GPS with way points  The next day we were ready to hit the highway, our first stop in the highlands as we cranked the iPod and tracked our way south, excited about the journey ahead.

DSC_4087Sometimes the feeling on the road is infectious, we grin at each other as another Monday rolls on and another 500 km’s roll by. Sometimes the glee makes us forgetful, and on this occasion Russ was the culprit, after travelling 160kms down the road and buying a roast chook for lunch we make the heavy discovery of a missing credit card. We realize that it’s still at the gas station where we refueled and with heavy hearts we turn Troy around and backtrack, hopefully to collect our precious MasterCard (Replacement No 3 so far, not wanting to make that No 4 . We are all kinds of pissed and as we grunt and moan back into the city of Santa Marta. Approximately 12 km from the gas station Russ notices something very strange out his side mirror… our duvet! This can only mean one thing and a very close inspection of the passenger side mirror confirms it, our entire roof is sitting on the highway, albeit in one piece. Half a second later a car runs straight over the top of it as Russ is skidding to a halt in the central median strip. WTF. Anna gets the ‘good news’ and the shock doesn’t strike until we get out and see penthouse roofless and our roof crushed, laying in the middle of the highway. A heartbreaking feeling slaps us, what the hell do we do now? Russ takes on the mad Colombian traffic and bravely drags the roof to the central median… the immediate emotion is similar to driving in a very remote desert, getting four flat tyres and only having two spares, how the f**k do we get out of this one.

Check out the Cartegena Pics: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.495534887148955.1073741828.319040084798437&type=1

Check out the Colombian Caribbean Coast Pics: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.495546797147764.1073741829.319040084798437&type=1