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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Amazon basin & Peru

With the rainy season coming to an end we decided to ditch our bikes in La Paz and head to the Amazon basin for a taste of wildlife. We opted for the 40-minute flight down to the jungle instead of the grueling 20-hour bus journey. The flight was spectacular, we cruised between the breathtaking 6000m peaks of the Cordillera Real and had great views of Lake Titicaca and the endless Amazon. After a slightly bumpy landing on the dirt runway we stepped out of the plane and were struck by the incredible heat and humidity. Rurrenabaque is a beautiful small town and is Bolivia´s best access to the Madidi National Park and the Amazon Jungle.
We signed up for a tour and spent three days exploring the pampas region mainly by boat. At this time of year there is not much solid land to walk on and so dugout canoe is the best way to get around. We stayed in huts built up on stilts and walked around on boardwalks. There were lots of alligators around so you didn´t want to fall in!! We had a great group and had a lot of fun. It was really hot and humid but we used lots of repellant and managed to avoid getting too badly bitten by mozzies.
We saw a myriad of animals.....alligators, black caiman, capybara, sloth (they were funny, so slow!), giant turtle, tapir, anaconda, cobra, all different types of monkeys (the howler monkeys were amazing), and we even got to swim with the pink river dolphins (a bit scary in the murky water that we had seen alligators cruising past just 10 minutes before!) We also enjoyed seeing lots of birds including toucan, macaw, heron, stork and many more that I don´t know the name of. Some photos....

Three-toed sloth

Alligator cruising past...

And up close....



Yellow monkey

Our accommodation... no solid land to be seen this time of year

White heron

One of the highlights of our jungle trip was meeting Faith Fippinger, an inspiring 68 year old American woman who we instantly connected with. Travelling like any 25 year old backpacker, Faith had up and sold everything in Florida to travel the world. A modest and gracious woman, she awed us with stories of her life...teaching blind people all over the world for 33 years, working and living in outback Australia for years, living in complete isolation for two years in a cabin in Alaska, volunteering in Indian hospitals and most recently having acted as a Human Shield in Iraq. She entered Baghdad weeks before the US invasión and remained there during the attacks, volunteering in hospitals treating civilain casualties. On arrival back in the States she was welcomed with a one million dollar fine from the US government for going to Iraq. Her refusal to pay landed her in a federal prison for three months. It was absolute pleasure to meet Faith and priviledge to hear her many stories of travel and Human Rights work overseas.

A few of our group....Faith, Lesley, Tilda and Johnny
Unfortunately on the morning of our return flight it started raining...and didn´t stop. The dirt runway turned to mud and our flight was cancelled. We waited around for a day and when the rain didn´t stop, we got the bus.

We had been warned this was “the worst” bus trip in all of South America - 20 hours plus of terrible roads in run-down buses, many breakdowns etc. It actually wasn´t too bad, with beautiful scenery of the jungle and we actually arrived into La Paz early! We spent the day in La paz catching up with friends and filling in IRD forms (grrr!!)

Our last 50 cent banana smoothie from the wonderful fruit women!

Our last night in La Paz...view of Illimani from the bar!
As time is running so short (flying to London in less than a month now) we have decided to race through Peru and enjoy our last 3 weeks cycle touring in Ecuador- which we`ve been told is amazing. Our one stop in Peru was Cusco to do some mountain biking and to visit the famous Machu Picchu.


We took the bus from La Paz to Cusco (11 hours). Cusco is a beautiful city in the middle of the Andes, with around 350,000 people. It was originally the capital of the Inca empire (1200s-1532) and is the oldest continuosly inhabited city in the Americas. “Discovered” by Spanish conquestador in 1533 the spanish quickly took over the city and constructed many beautiful cathedrals and churches on the foundations of the Inca city. We spent a relaxing day exploring the city, eating delicious food, planning our trip to Machu Picchu and getting caught in a late afternoon downpour while running. The following day we set off mountain biking towards Machu Picchu with our Scottish guide Dougie from Gravity Peru. This was not quite the amazing singletrack we had enjoyed in Bolivia, but it was a great way to see the Sacred Valley and explore rural Peru. We biked on 4wd tracks and single track and had great views of the mountains and valley below. At the end of the day we visited incredible salt pans that are thought to pre-date Incan times. After a good day riding we spent the night in the delightful town of Ollantaytambo exploring some of the nearby ruins and eating at an awesome restaurant. There are currently three main ways to reach Machu Picchu- the most famous is the Inca Trail (expensive, you have to have a guide, and book early), on the train (good because anyone can get there) or via the “backdoor”. We chose the backdoor route which involves a day of riding, a few taxi trips and an early morning walk along the train tracks. The Gravity crew picked us up from Ollantaytambo and we drove up to the Abra Malaga pass 4350m (Shane this is where the mega-Avalanche race starts). From there we rode 30km of sealed rode and 30km of gravel, with a tiny bit of off-road, descending from chilly alpine air to the humid heat of the jungle. We had a beer and then said goodbye to the bikes and Matt from Gravity. That night we stayed in a small village called Santa Teresa and spent hours soaking in some of the most beautiful hot springs we have ever been to. Set among stunning mountains, with pools cut out of the rocks and crystal clear water... it was heaven! The following day was Machu Picchu day. With an early 5am start we set off walking along the train tracks that lead to the Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu). The walk took around two hours with the tracks following a raging river that winds through stunning forest. From Aguas Calientes we took the steep Inca trail up to Machu Picchu itself. Machu Picchu was thought to be constructed around 1400-1500AD and was perhaps the last of the Inca`s impressive cities. It was abandoned around 100 years later at the time of the Spanish conquest and remained undiscovered until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to worldwide attention in 1911. To this day there is no agreement as to the actual purpose and use of Machu Picchu. The Incan people themsleves are not native to the Peruvian area and no one is sure where they originated from. The Cusco region was the founding area of their Empire that stretched from modern-day Columbia through into Chile and Argentina. Their incredible architectural skill and organisational ability is clearly demonstrated at the breathtaking Machu Picchu.

We were both pretty blown away on arriving at the almost perfectly preserved ruins- set high in the mountains with early morning mist swirling around the peaks. We spent the day exploring the ruins- the perfect stonework, the terracing, precarious bridges and being constantly impressed by what had been acheived in this most isolated of places without any modern equipment.
The green line of vegetation in this photo was an old Inca path etched into a cliff leading from Machu Picchu...extremely narrow and with a 1000m drop!!

After enjoying a cold cerveza in the afternoon sun we headed back to Cusco by train. Tomorrow we are heading to Lima…by plane! The bus ride there is epic and we are wanting to get to Ecuador as soon as possible! Next blog will probably be our last from South America….time has gone soooo fast. We are both super excited about going to Europe and catching up with everyone.