Whitlocks Round the World - Travel Diary for March 04

Click here to read the latest newsThe diary of our trip round the world. You can view other diary entries by clicking the highlighted months at the bottom of the page or by clicking on one of the countries visited so far. Click our logo (on the left) to see the most recent news entries. We are adding new entries from Internet Cafés as we travel, so updates may be irregular. Please check back often to see how we are getting along.

Countries visited so far: UK Latvia Lithuania Poland Slovak Republic Hungary Romania Bulgaria Greece Egypt Tanzania Malawi Mozambique South Africa Swaziland South Africa (again) Argentina Bolivia Peru Ecuador Vietnam China Mongolia Russia England

3rd March Bolivia
The Devil in Potosí - Click to enlargePotosí is a mining town. We had heard that a visit to the mines could be pretty grim, but felt that it would be interesting, as mining is carried out here now in a similar way to in Britain centuries ago. In fact, in many ways conditions down the Potosí mines have not changed much since their foundation in the 16th century. The town is built at the foot of Cerro Rico, a mountain that was once rich in silver and other minerals. Although silver was first discovered there by an Indian, Diego Huallapa, the mines being established by indigenous people were quickly taken over by the Spanish, in 1572. The silver mined at Potosí was exported to Europe and made Spain very wealthy, while Potosí Indians worked as slaves in the mines, often not seeing the light of day for months at a time. When the Indians refused to work in the mines they were imprisoned (which was not such a bad thing by comparison) and black slaves brought in from Africa. It was even worse in the mines for them, as they were not used to the 4000m altitude there. In all, some 8,000,000 people died in the mines between 1545 and 1825.

Now, the silver has mostly gone, but 4500 men and boys still work in the mines, bringing out cartloads of stone with veins of zinc, tin and lead to try and scrape a living. Tom, Nick and I went on a tour of the mines, while Esther stayed at the hostel to play with Natalie, the three-year-old daughter of a receptionist there. We wore overalls and helmets with miners´ lights. First we went to the miners´ market, a couple of tiny shops selling coca leaves, biscuits and dynamite. We were shown how these things were used down the mines. We bought a bag containing dynamite, detonator, ammonium nitrate and a fuse, as a gift for the miners, as well as coca leaves and some biscuits. Then we were taken in a minibus to the entrance to the mine.

There are hundreds of tunnels zig-zagging around the inside of Cerro Rico. Because of the tunnels caving in, it is estimated that the mountain is currently losing at least a metre in height every year. The tunnel we went into seemed relatively stable, though it wasn´t pleasant. It was dark and damp, and forks led off in all directions, as well as passages leading up to the tunnel above, down to the one below, sometimes even diagonally up or down into the mountain. We saw miners working. They all had a huge bulge in the cheek, where they were chewing a mass of coca leaves. When they worked with a drill the compressed air which powered it made a loud hissing sound which frightened Tom, who was thinking of miners killed by poisonous gases. Others were chipping away at the rock by hand in order to create a cavity into which they could put dynamite to blow a lump of rock from the wall. Our guide told us that sometimes they chip away for up to ten hours to prepare for one explosion. We met ´Johnny´ who is 18 and has been working in the mines since the age of 12. The day we visited he was working as an assistant in a small group. It was a twelve hour shift with no breaks (ie: no lunch, no snacks or drinks and no trips to the toilet) for which he said he would be paid 30 Bolivianos (about 2 pounds 30). He had, as all the miners had, a large bulge in one cheek, where he was chewing coca leaves. Our guide explained that this helps the miners not to feel cold, tired and hungry. Basically, it numbs the senses. Johnny, as a miner, can expect to live to about 45 years of age.

We walkwed through a few more tunnels, stepping aside occasionally to allow a wagon load of stones to pass, and then we came to a little cavern wherein sat the devil! We were told that, in an odd blend of ancient Indian superstition and introduced Catholicism, the miners worship the devil as the god of the underworld. This was one of Tom´s more bizarre RE lessons! The strange god-idol sat in a dark room with one of the miners´ herby cigarettes in its mouth, some coca leaves in his hand, and was draped with streamers from the recent Carnaval celebrations. He had a large penis moulded, as he was, from clay, symbolising his fertile relationship with the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and therefore the production of a good yield of minerals from the mountain.

We were glad to see the light of day when we stepped out of the mine and back into the sunlight. Being stuck down there for hours on end as the miners are must be one of the grimmest ways to make a living that there is.

7th March Bolivia
La Paz
A busy street in La Paz - Click to enlargeOur friend Sarah and her 2-year-old daughter Beth were due to fly out to meet us in La Paz on the 6th of March, so we made our way there and arrived in plenty of time on the 4th. We took an overnight bus from Potosí and arrived at 5am, still travelling with Lotte. We found a friendly taxi driver and bought him a cup of coffee while we had breakfast in a cafe which he knew would be open. Then he took us to an assortment of hotels and hostels until we found one which suited us. There we arranged ourselves in one room and booked one next door for Sarah and Beth.

Their flight arrived early in the morning and we took a taxi to the airport to meet them. It was so wonderful to see a familiar face after so long away from home!

On Sarah´s first day she and Beth rested, and then we did some shopping, which is excellent and very cheap in La Paz. During the following few days we did a couple of excursions from the city, including a city tour (see below) and Tiwanaku (see next entry).

La Paz City Tour

The city tour was nice and the guide was friendly, although not incredibly knoledgeable. We went to the Valle de la Luna (valley of the moon), where we saw some pretty rock formations. We visited an old colonial part of town, where we saw the house where the revolution against the Spanish began in 1809. It was a pretty, narrow, cobbled street. We went for a walk around the markets, which were good to see. A lady peeled some cactus fruits for us to try and we saw some fresh fish from Lake Titicaca being cooked and sold. We also bought lots of fruit. Delicious small peaches, plums, figs and avocados.

8th March Bolivia
Sun Gate, Tiwanaku - Click to enlargeTiwanaku, or Tiahuanaco in Spanish, is the name given to an advanced pre-Incan civilisation that existed from 1500BC-1100AD. The centre of the Tiwanaku civilisation was in Bolivia, where they built their most important temple complex at the mid-point between the two cordilleras of the Andes. They worshipped a sun-god, as well as animorphic gods; the llama-god, which was the good, useful god of the earth, the puma-god, which was the bad god, as it ate the llama, although it had powers to protect, and the fish-god, representing the power and energy in water. The Tiwanakus were a farming society which domesticated the llama and created an advanced system of irrigation of crops, using the natural salinity of the soil to leech water from a system of canals. They planted potatoes (300 varieties!), quinua, a local staple, and corn.

We visited the most important site of Tiwanaku ruins from La Paz. Our guide, Freddie, was excellent. First he took us around the ceramics museum, where we saw the different types of ceramics used by the Tiwanakus for eating and drinking, and for ceremonies, and how the decoration of these became more advanced as time went on. Freddie made it really interesting and we got more from the experience than we would have done if we had been on our own. Next we walked around the ancient site itself. The remains which can be seen are the site of a group of temples. The most important structure is a raised pyramid-like temple, which had a pool on top designed to reflect the stars and thought to have been used to predict rainy and dry seasons. Another temple, at ground level, was carefully designed to be used at solstices and equinoxes. A huge sun gate was in its centre, through which the sun shone at these times. Our guide showed us by building a model out of stones and using a mirror to reflect sunlight through the gate. It was very clever! Another impressive temple was the semi-subterranean one, set about 2m into the earth. This temple is square and has carved stone heads, thought to represtent the many different ethnic groups which came together over time to form the Tiwanaku society.

We went for lunch at a restaurant near the site, and then went to see the museum of monoliths. The largest monolithic statue, the Bennett monolith, is 7m high and is thought to represent the Pachamama, Mother Earth.

In some ways the Tiwanaku site bore ressemblance to Ancient Egyptian temples, with its animal gods, huge monoliths of gods (rather than kings, as in Egypt), advanced astronomy, and its central pyramid structure (although this was a temple, not a tomb). We thought it remarkable that Tiwanaku isn´t talked about more. Although smaller in area the Tiwanaku culture existed for longer than the Inca empire and attained a high degree of advancement in agriculture and stone-masonry.

The children were all good, and although Beth cried a few times, she coped well with the day. We really enjoyed the tour and concluded that it was one of the best that we´ve done.

9th March Peru
Our bus on Lake Titicaca - Click to enlargeWe crossed the Bolivia - Peru border on a sunny afternoon in view of Lake Titicaca.

First we had to travel by bus to Copacabana, which is in a funny little 'island' of Bolivia, surrounded in part by Peru and in part by Lake Titicaca. The four hour journey involved a short boat trip across a narrow part of the lake. While we crossed the water in small motorised ferry boats, the bus also made the crossing in a flat, rectangular tray-like ferry designed for the purpose. It looked bizarre floating towards us as we waited on the Copacabana side.

Copacabana is a peaceful, pretty place on the lakeshore. We had lunch there and tried to post a parcel containing all the stuff we bought in La Paz. The woman said it would cost 750 Bolivianos, over 50 quid! We decided to have a rethink! Did we really buy that much stuff?!

We decided not to visit Isla del Sol, legendary birthplace of the first Inca king, in favour of visiting islands on the Peruvian side of the lake. We took a bus to Puno.

Walking together across the border to Peru in the sunshine, within view of Lake Titicaca, with Esther riding on my back (she had taken her shoes off in the bus) and Beth on Sarah´s shoulders, was something quite special.

On arrival in Puno it was easy to book an island tour. The two-day, one-night option was to take us to the Uros floating islands in the bay near Puno, to the remote and traditional Amantani island to stay overnight with a host family, and back via the larger island of Taquile.

10th - 11th March Peru
Lake Titicaca
On the Uros Islands, with Sarah and Beth - Click to enlargeWe left our hotel in Puno early in the morning and were taken by taxi to the port, where we were introduced to our guide, Rogerio.

The Uros floating islands
The journey by boat to the Uros islands took about an hour. The Uros people have an extremely unusual way of life. Descendants of some of the first humans to have existed in South America, they live on floating islands, like huge rafts, made of reeds. The islands are anchored at the corners so that they don´t drift around the lake, and the communities there live in houses constructed of reeds, visit their neighbours on other islands floating on raft-like boats made of reeds, and sell curios to tourists made of (you guessed it!) reeds. They even eat a part of the reed that grows there. We tried it. It was starchy and slightly sweet. Walking on the islands felt funny. The surface was spongy but felt very stable. From the island we landed on we took a reed-boat taxi to the biggest island in the group, where there is a school, a medical service and a post office (made of reeds!) I sent a postcard to mum and dad!

From the Uros to Amantani was a three hour ride in the boat. It was breezy and there were waves which made us feel a little dodgy, remembering the atrocious Big Boss voyage in Africa! But it was warm and sunny and sitting up on the roof was pleasant. Lake Titicaca itself is very beautiful. The clear water entering the lake from the surrounding mountains reflects the crystal sky to create a deep blue colour. With the higgledy-piggledy shore and the mountains falling steeply away, it reminded us a little of the coast of Greece.

On arrival at Amantani we were met by locals from designated families who provide tourist accommodation in their homes. We had a steep climb to our house. When we reached the house we were met by family members; Flora, a youngish woman, Salvador and another older woman, and also some small children who instantly wanted to find out all about Tom, Esther and Beth. The children played happily while we settled in. Accommodation was as basic as it could have been, but we were happy with that. Salvador´s family live in a traditional way, subsistence farming root vegetables, corn and quinua, and have some chickens, a few sheep and two cows. The meals that we ate there consisted of a lot of potatoes (albeit different varieties!) and good, wholesome soups.

In the afternoon we went for a walk to the top of the island. Amantani is round and steep - basically a mountain in the middle of the lake. Lake Titicaca is 3800m above sea level, and the top of Amantani island is 4130m. It felt like a long, hard climb. I carried Beth in the baby backpack - the first time I´d taken her for very long, and she was not too impressed about it. For the first half hour she screamed in my ear before subsiding to sobs and eventually giving up. Eventually I won, though, and Beth cheered up! The climb itself was beautiful and so peaceful, and the mountain lush and green. The path was good. As well as for tourists it´s used for processions to the square stone temple at the top, where llama foetuses are sacrificed to Pachamama. We got there in time to watch the sunset with the panoramic view of Lake Titicaca all around. It was peaceful and beautiful (although cold and windy) and we felt happy with our achievement in such a magical place. As we walked back down more and more stars appeared as night arrived until the sky looked like a glistening speckled cloth.

We sailed to the larger island of Taquile in the morning. It had been wet in the night, but by the time we arrived there the sun had come out and it was a gorgeous, fresh, sunny day. We had a walk of about one hour from the jetty to the plaza, where we were to regroup. The views were lovely, over the lake to Amantani, and, in the distance, the mountains of Bolivia. The people of Taquile live in a very traditional way, and wear a unique style of traditional clothing. The men wear dark trousers and white shirts with woven, brightly coloured belts. They can be seen walking around the island carrying loads on their backs (water, llama wool or reeds for roofing) and knitting as they go! They wear floppy knitted hats on their heads, the colour of which lets people know their marital status! In fact, our guide told us, if the hat is worn across the head in a certain way, one knows that its wearer is on the lookout for a girlfriend! How helpful, we thought! The women are also colourful, wearing brightly coloured waistcoats and large flared skirts, darker or blue if married, red if not.

Taquile means 'happy' in Quechua, and the island did seem a happy and peaceful place. Here I saw children playing and giggling together in a happy, relaxed way, a sight I´ve only rarely seen on the altiplano. Adults, too, seemed to smile more. The people there don´t live an easy life, everything they do being hampered by the steepness of the island, and the often severe weather on the lake. But somehow their simple, traditional style seemed to suit them.

The journey back across the lake to Puno was still, calm and peaceful. We sat on the roof in the sunshine and enjoyed the beautiful cleanness of the air around us and the water beneath.

13th - 15th March Peru
A sunny plaza in Cusco - Click to enlargeWe travelled from Puno to Cusco by train. It was a long 10 hour journey, but scenic and comfortable. We had booked second class, but discovered that this train is only available to tourists. That was a bit weird, as, had we known, we would probably not have taken the train at all.

On arrival in Cusco we took a taxi and asked to be shown some hostels with kitchen facilities, as the children were hankering after a home-cooked meal. However it turned out that the lady who was driving us had no license and therefore would only take us to her hostel! I looked around, followed by the woman and no less than three men. It all seemed a bit dodgy, so we said we would take another taxi to somewhere else. We left amid much confusion and a lot of trafic, and went to Kamila Lodge. Somehow or other all the men from the other taxi managed to get there before us. I suppose they were hoping for commission from the hotel. However, they showed us to a very nice apartment with a living room, kitchen and four bedrooms, all in wood and very big. They quoted $32 for all of us. It all seemed too good to be true, but after many questions, much discussion and a cup of coca tea we were convinced, and there we stayed.

We spent two days in Cusco not doing a great deal, but enjoying the atmosphere, the colonial architecture and the colourful fruit and veg ,markets. Having our own place meant that, for once, we could take full advantage of local produce, and Sarah and I enjoyed shopping for lots of fresh things to eat.

16th March Peru
Sacred Valley of the Incas
Exploring the Inca ruins - Click to enlargeThe Sacred Valley of the Incas is so-called because it contains a wealth of Inca ruins. Various tours run out of Cusco, but we were determined not to subscribe more than we had to to the tourist racket. The Peruvian tourist authorities have developed a sophisticated system for getting you to part with as much cash as possible, and Machu Picchu, at the other end of the Sacred Valley from Cusco, is their biggest tourist attraction. The expensive tourist-only trains and continuously plugged Inca Trail hike (or GrInca Trail, as we preferred to call it!) seemed over the top compared to anything else we`ve done anywhere so far, so we decided to plan our own Inca Trail, using local transport to travel through the Sacred Valley, visiting a few sites along the way.

We caught a bus to Pisac (or Pisaq) from Cusco. The ruins at Pisac cover a greater area than any other Inca site, including Machu Picchu, but are relatively little known or visited. We thought it was a magical place. Set high on the mountainside above the town of the same name, the ancient temples, living areas and defensive structures command an excellent view down into the Sacred Valley. Not only were the ruins impressive but the setting was really beautiful. A little lower in altitude than Cusco, set on the mountainside but sheltered by the valley, we were struck by the amount and variety of vegetation. We spotted many beautiful wildflowers and orchids, as well as birds. We really enjoyed being there. The Inca site is really big! It took us about two hours to walk between the various areas. We could see why the Incas should have chosen such a place, and we could feel the peace that surrounded it.

Back in the town of Pisaq we hopped on a bus to continue along the valley to Urubamba, and from there took a mini-bus to Ollantaytambo. We passed many minor ruins by along the way, but had read that those at Pisac and Ollantay Fort were the ones most worth visiting. I had to buy tickets for the train to Aguas Calientes (the Machu Picchu stop - there are no roads there) at Ollantaytambo, and that took ages, but we still managed to visit the Ollantay ruins for a short while, and they were impressive. This site, although probably built as a temple, has always been known as a fort because it was one of the few places where the Spanish conquistadors were beaten in a battle by the Incas. We thought this could have been because the Spanish were exhausted from climbing the hundreds of huge stone steps!

We ate pizza in a nice restaurant in the town before catching the train.

At Aguas Calientes we were met by a long line of hotel touts. We chose one and went to Hostal El Viajero. It was close to 10pm by the time we made it to our rooms and got the kids to bed, and we set our alarm for 5am, to be up early and get to Machu Picchu before the crowds.

18th March Peru
Machu Picchu
The classic view of Machu Picchu - Click to enlargeWe were determined to arrive at Machu Picchu on foot, rather than avoiding the steep climb from Aguas Calientes by taking the bus. We left the hostel before 6am and began.

The walk to the site was long and steep. Hundreds of steps climbed upward into the mountains. Aguas Calientes is set deep in the valley and we were amazed, as the sun came up, to find ourselves in rainforest. It was so lush and green and full of plants and creatures. Used to the harsh and inhospitable altiplano, we found our senses on overdrive as we climbed. Parrots flew across the valley from their nests in cliffs on the other side. We watched emerald-green hummingbirds gathering nectar from bright, tropical flowers, and I held a dew-damp butterfly in my hand as it dried its wings.

When we were two-thirds of the way up it started to rain. The rain became heavy and by the time we reached the entrance point to Machu Picchu, we were wet, despite our raincoats, as well as tired from the climb. We succummed to temptation and ordered expensive bacon-and-egg sandwiches from the cafe at the gate!

By the time the rain stopped and the cloud began to clear the crowds had well and truly arrived, despite all our efforts! We joined the queue, paid the $20 entrance fee and went to see the most famous of all Inca ruins.

Our first glimpses of Machu Picchu were through the mist of the clearing clouds, and for most of the morning swathes of mist - clouds travelling along the valley - swept across from time to time. It was beautiful, mystical and amazing, the way the ancient city kept disappearing and reappearing before our eyes. We sat on one of the ancient Incan agricultural terraces in the now-hot late morning sun, to rest and let the children play for a while. The view from there was incredible; the classic shot across Machu Picchu, with the sacred mountain, Huayna Picchu, behind. It was a great place to be, and we rested there, waiting for the tour groups to work their way around and past us.

It took the rest of the day to explore the site, which was large, impressive and beautiful. We saw where people lived, farmed and worshipped - the temples of the sun and the condor, and the Intihuatana, the sacred stone. We saw their ritual baths and fountains and the square where the community would have held its meetings and markets.

The intrigue of Machu Picchu, though, has more to do with the unknown. No-one really knows why Machu Picchu was built, nor why it was deserted sometime at the end of the 16th century, as the Spanish never found the community there. Shrouded with mist and mystery since its discovery in 1911, it is an intriguing and fascinating place.

We were still there at about 5pm, when nearly everyone else had gone. Then it was peaceful and felt as ancient as the mountains it's built on.

It took us considerably less time to walk back down to Aguas Calientes, and we were further rewarded on the way down by the appearence of a brilliant rainbow on the other side of the valley. We were pretty tired when we eventually reached the hostel, but on a high from the day's achievements. We went out for a meal to celebrate our visit to Machu Picchu, feeling really pleased with the way we had done things. The meal was great. The wine went down well, and we were all on a high with the energy of the place. (Except Esther, who fell asleep before her main course arrived!)

19th March Peru
Cusco - Sacsayhuamán horseback tour
6 riders at Sacsayhuamán - Click to enlargeThe expensive tourist train took us back to Cusco and we decided to spend one more day there to give us a chance to see a few more Inca sites in the area. We took a taxi to Sacsayhuamán (memorably pronounced 'sexy woman') and there we enquired about horses, as we had a hunch that rides were possible from there. We were able to arrange a three-hour tour of the Inca sites in the area to visit Q'enqo, the temple to Pachamama (Mother Earth), Templo de la Luna, the moon temple, Tambomachay, the water temple and, of course, Sacsayhuamán, the sun temple. Esther and I shared a horse and Sarah and Beth shared another, Nick had one to himself and so did Tom. Our guide walked. It was an excellent way to see the sites, dismounting to wander around each one as we arrived, and we all really enjoyed it.

Although the structure is most impressive at Sacsayhuamán, we particularly liked the Pachamama temple, a huge piece of bedrock with chambers and altars carved into it for ritual sacrifices. There was a zig-zag channel carved into the rock, into which would be poured the blood of a freshly sacrificed llama. Where the channel divided in two, the priest would be able to predict how successful the harvest would be that year, by how much blood flowed to the left, and to the right. We also liked the moon temple, also carved into the rock. This temple has no road running to it, so many of the bus tours from Cusco miss it out. A hole in the roof channels the light from the full moon onto an altar, also used for animal sacrifices.

Apart from the sites themselves, the ride took us through some wonderful mountain scenery. It was lovely and peaceful and relaxing. Beth even fell asleep!

Unfortunately the trip didn't have such a happy ending. In heavy rain and frightened by a bus, Nick's horse slipped on a muddy bank and he fell off. It was a worrying few moments as he appeared to have fallen badly among rocks. As it turned out, though, he was OK, although bruised and scraped. (His camera was OK, too, that time!)

Back in Cusco we paid a visit to the bus station to arrange our onward journey; a 16 hour overnight to Pisco, on the coast.

23rd March Peru
Pisco and the Paracas Reserve
Sealions on the  Ballestas Islands - Click to enlargeThe overnight journey to Pisco was awful! The bus was uncomfortable and had no toilet, and I developed a nasty tummy bug during the night. We were travelling at high altitude across the western cordillera of the Andes and were, for a while, in snow. Although it would have been pretty in daylight it was cold, and the altitude didn't help me to feel better.

With a short break at Nazca for breakfast, we were on that bus until about 1pm. We were dropped off on the Panamericana road 7km from Pisco, from where we took a taxi to the town itself. It felt very hot and sticky there, at sea level, having just come from the mountains. We had some lunch and then, feeling tired, dirty and dishevelled, went in search of somewhere relatively comfortable to stay. We had, by this time, abandoned any crazy ideas of camping on the Paracas Peninsula, and plumped, instead, for a hostel in town with private rooms and a pool!

We hung around there quite a bit during our three night stay. However, of course we also took a day-trip to the peninsula and the famous Ballestas Islands. The tour company picked us up from the hotel at about 7am and took us to the jetty. The boat was a 20 seater twin engine speed boat, and the six of us sat along the back seat. It was great fun! It took us about half an hour to reach the islands, speeding along and bouncing across the waves. We were exhilerated by the ride and excited about the prospect of spotting wildlife, so when we spotted our first two sealions, swimming near the boat, it was wonderful! We didn't need to worry, this time, about not seeing what we hoped to see, though. There were literally thousands of sealions living on the islands, which are actually just huge, barren lumps of rock in the sea. (This is Peru's desert coast after all!) At the beach where the largest number of sealions breed the sea was teaming with babies, and the huge males were roaring loudly in competition with each other. It was a noisy place!

As well as the sealions we saw penguins, Peruvian boobies, Inca terns, lots of huge, prehistoric-looking pelicans, cormorants and many types of gulls. Turkey vultures and birds of prey circled around. It was an incredible place, rich in life and activity.

We sped back to Paracas Beach, where we had a quick breakfast before setting off on the second part of the tour. A bus took us to see the striking landscape of the desert peninsula. We went to the Paracas museum, and then on to a place where there is a view of a rock formation known as 'La Catedral'. The contrast between the barren land and the life-rich shore was striking as we stared into the water from the dusty cliff-tops, looking for dolphins and sea-otters.

We drove again, to Lagunillas beach, where we had an hour and a half for lunch. We ate fish at a restaurant on the rocky shore, and I even had a quick swim. Sarah, Nick and Tom didn't. They were too scared of crabs (of which there were a few about) and spiny sea urchins!

26th March Peru
Into the jungle!
Travelling down the Amazon with the Cocomas tribe - Click to enlargeWe travelled from Pisco to Lima by bus and stayed one night before boarding our flight to Iquitos. It is not possible to travel to the jungle town of Iquitos by road. Options are limited to either 4-6 days by boat, or a flight, so, on this occasion, we made an exception from our rule of not taking internal flights.

Manuel Asiendes and his family met us at the airport. There was some initial confusion as I misunderstood something Manuel said to me in Spanish amid noise and chaos, and we almost ended up staying a night in Iquitos unnecessarily as a result. But eventually things got straightened out and we agreed that we should catch the boat to San Martin, home to the Cocoma community, that evening. We ate a meal, went shopping for water for the journey and went to the bank, being looked after by Jani, a friend of Manuel who helps with tourists as she speaks English. Then we went to find Manuel, who had spent the afternoon buying supplies and bagging us the best places for hammocks on the boat.

We rode to the port in rickshaw taxis, of which there are thousands in Iquitos, all transported there by boat, and arrived amid noisy pre-embarkation chaos. Our bags disappeared, taken by Manuel's friends, but unnerving at the time, anyway, as there were people and animals everywhere, and a whole row of river launches about to depart and we didn't know which one was ours! Chased by rickshaw drivers wanting to be paid, we hurried after our bags, which we could see rapidly disappearing into the crowd. Once aboard the boat, and reunited with all our worldly belongings, things calmed down a bit, but the chaos continued around us. The launch was being loaded with its cargo, a process which took nearly two hours, during which time several things happened. Firstly, it got dark. Many people tried to sell us things; torches, batteries, cigarettes, cooked chicken, fruit, hammocks... and at some point as we tried to organise our little piece of deck amid the noise and confusion, one of these people seized his opportunity and made off with Nick's small rucksack. It can only have been gone a few seconds before he noticed, and then panic ensued! The bag contained our passports! Some people heard our shouts and quickly a mob were on the move. Nick charged off too to spot the bag. I stayed with the children, but Sarah went to the front of the launch to watch the action. Nick scanned the crowd from the deck. He could see the mob running after the guy with the bag and charged full-pelt to join them. By the time Nick reached them, the thief had been taken down and was being "dealt with" by the mob. To our relief the passports were still in the bag - just Nick's Maglite was missing (the third we've lost so far!) and his binoculars.

As we set off up-river, things quietened down a lot and we began to get to know those around us. Travelling with us were Manuel and his wife Rosa, and their three daughters, Candy, 10, Morelia, 8, and Leonora, 6. Manuel explained that their son, Sandro, who is 13 and whom we had met in Iquitos, stays in town instead of returning to the village in order to be able to respond to email received. He lives at his uncle's house and communicates with his parents by radio. Rosa was lovely and looked after us very well throughout the voyage, and the three girls played happily and noisily with Tom, Esther and Beth. Also with us was Moran, an Israeli woman who had been to stay with the Cocoma community before and was returning as a volunteer.

The journey on the launch took about 20 hours and was surprisingly comfortable. The hammocks were great and much easier to sleep in than we had expected. The kids thought they were great to use as swings, too! It was a bit cold during the night, even though they lowered the tarpaulin sides against the rain, and in the late morning, when the sun came out, it was hot, but there was plenty of air.

We got off the launch at about 1pm and travelled the rest of the way to the village by motorised canoe. Manuel showed us the lodge, where we would stay while at the village. It was beautiful; a wooden house on stilts, as, after a lot of rain, all of the houses are surrounded by water, and the villagers visit each other by canoe! Everything was open to the fresh air, the bedrooms being made of bamboo screens with thatched roofs, and there was a big veranda outside with wicker chairs and hammocks. There Manuel formally welcomed us to the village. He asked us how deeply into the jungle we would like to go. Although tired from the journey we had come to see the jungle! We decided to head off the following afternoon, for a six-hour canoe ride into the deep jungle, and a two-day camping expedition.

29th March Peru
Jungle Expedition!
Into the Jungle! - Click to enlargeIn the morning, before we left, Manuel arranged for us to have a guided tour of the village, to see how the people of the Cocoma community live. Our guide showed us the small crops of yuca (for the roots – like potatoes or parsnips without the sweetness) and corn, and also the various medicinal plants that grow there. There were so many of these that before long it seemed that everything that grows in the village has some use, either for back pain, stomach problems, to maintain a healthy pregnancy, to help children grow etc. etc. Later, in the jungle, we were even shown a tree that can help heal broken bones! Our guide explained each time which part of the plant was used and how it was prepared and taken. Some preparations have to be taken on a full or a new moon. It was really interesting. After we had walked around the central plaza, a big grassy area that is used for sports (mainly fútbol) as well as fiestas and other village events, we were feeling thirsty. We went to find the nearest coconut tree and bought some coconuts from the man whose house it was near! By this time we had a gathering crowd of children accompanying us, and they stood and watched while we drank the sweet coconut milk, and then shared the soft, moist flesh with us. We walked (all of us!) to the other end of the village to see their school.

Lunch was a turtle! This was rather disturbing as we have read that turtles are under threat and that their meat should be refused on ecological grounds. It was particularly upsetting because, during our walk, we had seen Manuel with the turtle, a huge and beautiful creature, still alive. He was bringing it home. At first when he said we were going to eat it I thought he was joking. We had a long conversation with him about the implications of hunting and killing turtles for food. He explained that a proper breeding program is in place and that, besides, the community doesn’t normally eat turtles. “Great!” we thought, “it’s being killed in our honour!” Thomas was particularly horrified and refused to eat any of the meat at lunchtime, as did Nick. Sarah and I felt that, to be polite, we should do our best, and picked a bit at our turtle soup, drinking the soup (which was made of banana) and avoiding most of the meat.

After lunch we swam in the river until it was time to go, and we left for the jungle at about 3.00. The journey in motor-canoe, or peka-peka, was about two and a half hours to our first stop, where we would camp overnight before going the rest of the way to Pevedos. The boat ride was great and very comfortable as we had mattresses (for sleeping) on the floor. On the way we saw several river dolphins. Their backs rise out of the water as they glide through it, but if you’re not quick all you see is ripples! We also saw eagles, called ‘mama vieja’ and kingfishers and beautiful butterflies.

It was getting dark fast by the time we reached our camping spot. We were amazed at how easily our three guides, Victor, Tulio and Wilson, found it. Just a little channel going off into the trees, where there was a small clearing to set up a tent. Equally amazing was how quickly they set up camp. Two plastic sheets became our groundsheet and roof, supported by wooden sticks they found or cut to measure. They rigged up our mosquito nets (which we were very glad of) under the roof sheet, and held them up with more sticks. All this took about half an hour, by which time they also had a fire going to cook on. This was incredible as it was achieved using damp wood. However they successfully cooked us a supper of fried eggs and boiled water for coffee over it!

After eating we went out in the boat to look for crocodiles. Esther, who was tired, stayed at camp with Moran. Unfortunately there were no crocodiles about, but we enjoyed the trip and heard many strange jungle sounds, including frogs, cicadas, crickets and a queen ant! We returned to camp and spent a happy half-hour killing the ants that had found their way into our nets. Then we went to sleep. The night was noisy with jungle sounds. Some, like the howler monkeys, which roar in the distance, rather than howl, were quite eery!

We set off at about 7.00am, taking breakfast with us to eat in the boat. We had been led to believe that the journey should take about another three hours, but it turned out to take much longer. Still, it was peaceful, and fun to wash in the river over the side of the canoe as we went along. We saw brilliantly coloured butterflies, and beautiful parrots which looked almost black when sitting in the trees which lined the river but, when they flew and the sunlight caught their feathers, you could see they were actually a deep blue. There were also green parrots and toucans. Suddenly Tulio called Wilson to stop the engine. He had spotted a manatee, or “sea cow”. Although the rest of us saw only ripples and bubbles where it had dived, it was exciting as they are rarely seen at all. Later we had even more excellent luck to see a river otter. This was another unusual sighting and I saw it clearly, with its head sticking straight up from the surface of the water.

Soon after the otter sighting we stopped at a warden’s hut, where we had to sign into the strict reserve. We were glad we had stopped there as, five minutes after we had arrived, it started to rain. This was no gentle, refreshing shower, but a jungle downpour. The water came down as sheets of huge drops that ricocheted off the roof and terrace so that things even got wet inside the building. We were glad that we were not in the canoe! Although the little garden around the warden’s hut had turned into several lesser rivers, the guides continued to gather firewood to cook our meal. Incredibly they got a fire started, again, in the little kitchen. They prepared fish, fresh ‘paicha’, which they had bought from some men in a canoe that morning, with potatoes, fried bananas (which are delicious and eaten as a savoury dish) and papaya. It was a fantastic meal. Sarah and I went for a walk around the garden, freshly wet from the jungle rain, and we saw butterflies emerging from their leaf-shelters, and many spiders, big and colourful females hovering in their webs with small brown males which looked more likely to be their lunch than their mates!

We chugged across to the other side of the river in the canoe to go for a jungle walk. It is hard to know how to describe what it was like to be in the rainforest. It felt incredibly special to be there. See below for Tom's Report!

We eventually arrived at Pevedos just before dark. The river widened to a big lake surrounded by dense forest. It must be one of the most peaceful places in the world. The place where we were to camp was accessed through a huge mangrove tree and was completely invisible from the water. Despite the fading light and the many mosquitoes (not to mention crocodiles, piranhas and anacondas which are in the river) I decided I had to go swimming! I waded out on a tree trunk that reached into the water through the mangroves. The water was cool and buoyant and rich reddish brown in colour. It was tranquil and wonderful to swim there as the evening mist rose from the surface of the lake and the sun set behind the trees. Nick joined me, followed by Tom. Brave of them, I thought!

In the night the rain returned with a vengeance! It thundered down onto our plastic-sheet roof for hours. When it first started we were still up, finishing our meal. Chaos reigned for a while as we tried to manoeuvre children into bed and remove muddy wellies in the wet darkness. Esther’s mattress was somehow wet at the head end, and our bed also had a drip. Once we were all inside the guides ran around for at least an hour ensuring that most of the water remained outside. They did an amazing job, and we had something akin to a peaceful nights sleep, while the rain continued for most of the night.

Although the rain had calmed down by morning, it had meant that we couldn’t go crocodile hunting again, and even the monkeys, which we had been told are often at Pevedos, stayed away. We had packed up and were ready to go by about 7am, and made the journey back to the warden’s hut before breakfast. Then we carried on back downriver. The journey back to San Martín passed quickly, as most of us slept, lying on the sleeping mats on the floor of the canoe. When we got back everyone was waiting for us; Manuel, Rosa and their daughters, now good friends of our children. They had great news! There was no launch that night, so we would have to stay another night in the village before making the long journey back to Iquitos!

March 2004 Peru
Report on our Jungle Walk by Tom
Tom, jungle chef! - Click to enlargeAfter lunch we crossed the river for our jungle walk! We got off the peka-peka at a small part of the riverbank that was cleared but still almost invisible in the foliage. We got out of the peka-peka, scrambled up the bank and instantly it was mozzy-mania.

I was walking behind Victor who had the machete, plastering myself with repellent and watching the 50 odd mosquitoes flying just behind him and trying to land on him. Every time he stopped all of them would land and begin searching for a way in.

On the floor every now and then you would see a huge grey caterpillar with white spikes drifting along the floor or the leafcutter ants’ M1 bringing food to the queen!

Some of the trees were big enough to have a house in and with roots bigger than me! We came to one gigantic tree that was 2000 years old that must have stuck right out of the canopy.

A little while later we came to a type of tree called the Ant Tree! Why? because ants live in it. The ants live in the tree and in return they protect it! To show it was true Victor tapped the tree with his machete and ants poured out of the holes towards the ground and we had to move away quickly so we didn’t get bitten!

We were walking again and we came to another tree where the roots were as high as Nick’s knees and as he climbed over them he tripped and broke his camera.

It wasn’t very long after that when we saw monkeys! They were quite high up and they were running along the branches jumping and swinging (and although I only saw one) it was brilliant!

Then we went back to the boat and half of me wanted to get away from the mozzys and half wanted to stay!

March 2004 Peru
My jungle chain saw experience
Tall trees in the Amazon rainforest - Click to enlargeTeaching a tribe of Amazonian Indians how to use a chain saw By Nick
On the day before we were leaving San Martin I noticed a small crowd of people, desperately trying to start the new chain saw that Manuel had bought in Iquitos on our way out a few days earlier. I couldn’t resist and offered my help. They were all extremely happy to hear the thing start and so I explained the best way to start the big saw. After a few moments of confusion they got the message that this was my bag, as I have had many years experience in the forestry field. We spent that evening relaxing and drinking beer with Manuel, his wife and all the guides who had taken us in to the rain forest. I got hold of a crate of beer in the village which was an experience in itself.

Through my interpreters Lin and Moran, I discovered they were interested in learning how to use the chain saw correctly and would I give them a lesson in the jungle tomorrow, an hours ride in the peka-peka? This was a first for me! Not only would I be teaching a remote Amazonian tribe how to use the machine but I would be also doing tree work in a Amazonian rain forest! Of course I agreed and we enjoyed the rest of the evening talking and after many beers laughing too.

So the next day the tribe took me to the area they wanted to cut fire wood. Palm trees, banana plants, huge giant jungle trees with vines 2 inch thick and many strange wild flowers in spaces on the forest floor were the canopy had been broken surrounded us and together with the fantastic noise of insects it made this “tree job” a bit surreal. It can get pretty hot in the UK using a chain saw in the summer as the protective trousers are like wearing a quilt round each leg. But nothing had prepared me for the searing heat of the jungle and the shear volume of biting mosquitoes. We began the lesson. To help me show these guys some safety tips and a few tricks of the trade I had my interpreter, Moran, with me. She was also interested in how to use the saw and “wanted a go later”. cool! After a couple of hours we were all getting along fine and they took my instructions very seriously. It was a bit strange though as I don’t really have to worry about stepping on a deadly spider or avoiding a hanging snake in the forests of England! But nothing happened like that and after some time I became used to this forest in South America. One thing did shake me a bit; the wood the tribe needed was a fallen giant hollow trunk and as they were trying out the chain saw a group of huge bats came flooding out of the trunk. Obviously this was their habitat. That got me thinking.

We discussed the environmental impact this cutting machine will have on their rainforest and we walked and talked for some of the morning. The group were very aware of the deforestation in the world and the colossal amount of natural habitat loss it causes. I was pleased to see they took my recommendations gratefully. As we were talking one of the men, Wilson, called me over to a massive tree, he presented me with a freshly cut vine and told me to drink the liquid oozing out of the cut end. It was to my surprise extremely cold and refreshing. As we returned to wait for the boat the men were lively and talking loudly amongst themselves I think they learned a lot from our morning in the forest, as did I.

31st March Peru
San Martín - Iquitos - Lima
Motor-rickshaw ride - Click to enlargeIt was fantastic to be able to spend that extra time at San Martín.

We swam in the river, Esther wearing a life jacket and swimming happily with her new friends, Tom jumping in and then climbing out again quickly to avoid being nibbled by little fishes in the water. The river water there is a rich dark red-brown colour, apparently caused by the biodegradation in the water of organic matter from the forest floor, meaning that, while swimming or washing, you cannot see into the water beyond a few centimeters. Some of us found that rather disconcerting at times!

Both the children had lots of opportunities to practise their Spanish. Esther repeats many phrases she’s heard, often without really knowing what they mean, which can be funny at times! Tom can now ask for many of the things he needs, like drinks, fruit, to know the time, etc. He doesn’t always understand the answers yet, but is keen to try out every new word he learns.

In the evening on the day we returned to the village from the jungle, we bought a case of beer from the local drinking hole, and shared it with Tulio and Victor (Wilson was watching a football match on the village’s one TV), and Manuel and Rosa, as well as Moran. It was a really nice evening, on the veranda of the lodge. We talked in Spanish and English and laughed at funny stories, and at our inability to understand one another, although Moran helped a lot with interpreting. It was warm and friendly and all of us were sad that we were leaving the next morning.

Apart from Nick, who went out into the jungle to give his chainsaw lesson, we spent the whole of the next day at the lodge before leaving to catch the launch in the evening. We swam in the river and washed our clothes. Then we swung in hammocks on the veranda while the children played, which they all did happily all day long. Rosa cooked us a tasty lunch of chicken, rice and cooked bananas and yuca. There was a heavy shower in the afternoon and Sarah and I went swimming again. The river water was so warm compared to the cold rain. It was good fun!

Soon after 5pm we left in the canoe to go to the place where we would catch the launch. Manuel came with us, and would accompany us all the way back to Iquitos, and we were glad of his company. We waited for about two and a half hours in a big hut used as a bar by the river, and then someone spotted the boat approaching. There were a few minutes of chaos while everyone who was going to Iquitos gathered their things. It was very dark! The big boat came close to the bank and a wooden plank was put out for us to walk across. It was clear that the launch was very full. Several tons of bananas were in transit, along with three pigs and four cows on the open deck at the front of the boat. Inside was choc-a-bloc. There were hundreds of hammocks with far less room between them than there had been on our way there. There were also people sleeping on the floor and on the benches at the sides of the decks and, on the top deck, where we were, a long row of crates full of chickens and a few free-roaming cockerells! It was noisy and very smelly. We were glad we had Manuel with us as he found what little space there was and managed to string up hammocks for all of us, something we would never have managed to do on our own. Sarah and I and the children were at one end of the deck (near the chickens) and Nick and Manuel at the other (near the toilets)!

The following day, 31st March, was Esther’s 5th birthday, and it began at 5.00am, when we were woken in our hammocks by Manuel. The launch was arriving at Nauta, from where Manuel said we could catch a bus to Iquitos and get there more quickly. So Esther’s birthday began with a chaotic dash to get our belongings together and scramble off the boat. This was followed by a short ride in a motor-rickshaw for Esther and I, Sarah and Beth, and the bags, to the bus place. The men walked! Esther was delighted and took it to be a special birthday treat, although really it was because Manuel thought it would be a long way for us to carry the bags! At 6.00am we left by bus for Iquitos.

When we arrived Manuel took us to the ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’, where we had eaten when we were in Iquitos before. There he left us for a couple of hours while he went off to attend to some business of his own, and we had breakfast. We met Gerald, the Texan who owns the restaurant. We sat in a little courtyard outside in the shade, ordered Texan pancakes and maple syrup for breakfast, and Esther opened her presents. We gave her a Swatch watch that we had bought all the way back in Argentina. Tom gave her an ocarina that he had bought at one of the Incan sites near Cusco, and Sarah and Beth gave her a sun necklace from the Uros islands on Lake Titicaca. She was very pleased! She didn’t eat much pancake as she was too busy with everything, but the rest of us enjoyed them!

When Manuel came back he asked what we would like to do before going to the airport in the afternoon. We said that we would like to go and see the market at Belén. It was a hot, sticky walk to get there, but the market was fascinating. There were jungle fruits of all shapes and sizes, and roll upon roll of paicha. Paicha is a huge fish that lives in the river. When it is caught by the fishermen in canoes, it takes them hours to kill it and get it to shore. Then the two-and-a-half meter long fish is cut into strips lengthways and rolled up to be taken to market. We saw cigarettes being made; rough, raw tobacco rolled up in big papers. Nick and Sarah tried one. It wasn’t very nice! Then we got to the part of the market where medicinal plants are sold. There were dried herbs, roots, bits of bark, bags of leaves, ointments, lotions and bottles of potions that will cure anything and bring good luck too! Nick was persuaded to buy a bag of patchouli to cure his baldness and a bottle of strong-tasting liquid that is supposed to be good for joint pain and also, coincidentally, an aphrodisiac!

We walked down to Belén port. There is a shanty-town district there which has gradually crept further and further into the river, and is now known as Iquitos’ floating district. It was amazing to see people living their lives, some houses on tall stilts and some which literally float. With all the waste going, we presumed, directly into the river, it was a bit smelly, too! Having had enough of boats lately, we opted out of the boat tour of the shanty town and took a rickshaw back.

Back at the ‘Yellow Rose’ there was a big slice of birthday cake waiting for Esther. It had ‘Happy birthday Esta’ written on it in icing, and had a candle. They put ‘Happy Birthday to You’ on the CD player and Esther blew out her candle. Then we all had a little bit.

We got to the airport shortly before 3pm, with our flight back to Lima scheduled for 4.20pm, to find that it had been delayed. We had a long and frustrating wait, as the delay continued and the plane didn’t take off until about 7pm, by the time all the children’s hopes of a ‘special’ birthday tea at McDonalds had flown out of the window. The flight was comfortable but it was close to 10pm by the time we left Lima airport in a taxi. We did manage to end the day with a meal, however. We got a 5-bed room at Hotel España, which our friends the Rawlins had recommended, and went to a nice restaurant close by. We all had burgers and hot-dogs so, although late, Esther declared it to be a satisfactory birthday tea! Afterwards we carried a tired 5-year-old to bed, but she was happy with her day. Later we counted up all the modes of transport she had been on: the launch, four motorcycle-rickshaws, a bus, Manuel’s shoulder (to walk around Belén), the aeroplane, and a taxi! It was a birthday which started in the Amazonian jungle and ended in Lima, the capital city of Peru. A remarkable day in many ways!

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