A Travellerspoint blog

Ambue Ari - I'm not a celebrity... Get me out of here!

From the cold and clear expanse of the salt flats to the intense heat and closeness of the jungle, I've literally travelled from one extreme to another (via a sedentary stopover in the lovely town of Sucre; funny stories here involving drinking wine in the park but remind me to tell you some other time). Sitting in the comparative luxury of this hostel with mod cons like electricity, flushing toilets and only the odd cockroach, I don't really know how to begin to write about my experience over the last two weeks, except for the fact that I feel not a little overwhelmed to be back in the 'real world'.

So for those of you who don't know, I've just been to Parque Ambue Ari, part of the Inti Wara Yassi community, an animal refuge in the Bolivian jungle around six hours from Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The location is basic, with no electricity or telephone, let alone Internet, where you sleep on straw mattresses with rats as neighbours, share the long drop with every insect known to man, and the nearest place you can buy a beer is 8km away. Sounds like hell on earth, no? Well surprisingly not actually. Ambue Ari was created with land reclaimed from a local farmer - the remaining neighbouring land has suffered severe deforestation due to farming and means that the park now provides refuge to loads of wild animals, including pumas, jaguars, and monkeys. And it's all about the animals and the amazing people who volunteer to look after them.

Don't stop reading! I promise not to get too worthy on you! You're probably wondering how this meat-loving, vegetarian-loathing, city girl ended up in such a place huh? I thought much the same thing when we arrived after another harrowing Bolivian road journey (4 to a seat, driving on whichever side of the road has less potholes) to be greeted by a bunch of hippies in stripy pyjama trousers with too much facial hair and clearly no notion of deodorant. We being Jen, Emma and I, who had decided on a whim to come and join Nathan and Ben of salt flat fame for a couple of weeks in the jungle. How hard could it be?!

The first thing that hits you is the heat. I never knew I could sweat so much or that I could smell so bad! I kept thinking it was the person next to me but when you are wet through with sweat literally two minutes after drying from a shower you come to accept that no deodorant is going to help you. The next thing are the mosquitos. Oh my god, they are huge! And I got bitten. A lot. At one point I'm pretty sure I looked like I had measles. So you wear loads of layers to try and protect against them but then sweat yourself silly. Its safe to say that by the end of day one we were indistinguishable from the rest of the grubby, smelly camp.

Still confused as to what I'm doing here? Well the next day we got assigned to our animals and Jen and I got to work in Quarantine, the section that looks after the new arrivals until they can be housed elsewhere in the park. This included two squirrel monkeys, two toucans, a macaw, two pig-like creatures called choncos, a baby tapir, an otter (who knew they had them in South America?) and a baby howler monkey that hung around your neck all day and needed hand-feeding. Beginning to see it? Well it's probably easiest to explain if I describe a typical day for you...

We are woken at 6:30am by the lovely Tania and the camp parrot called Gordo who can only say "ola" and "Gordo". We are assigned daily tasks to complete between 7am and 8am, when we all have breakfast together - two bread rolls and lashings of marmite (thanks for the jar Pa!) A game of rock, paper, scissors is then played to see who has to wash up and more often than not I ended up losing to the entire camp.
At 9am we head off to our various animals and in Quarantine our first job of the day is to feed all the animals, then to clean up after them. It's a little bit like being a zoo keeper!
We break for lunch at 12:30pm which is vegetarian unless it's Chicken Monday or Meat Thursday. We have free time until 2pm where we usually hang out in the fumador eating ice creams bought from the crazy 12 year old Bolivian entrepreneur who catches the bus every day just to sell ice lollies to some sweaty gringos!
Work in the afternoons involves 'enriching' the animals environment so for example one day we will clean the otters pool or replace branches in the bird cages, plant in the tapir's enclosure, or make toys out of old pringles tubes for the monkeys...
Then it's feeding time for the animals again before finally it's feeding time for us at 6:30pm. It's a long old day and more often than not we will either hitch a ride or catch the bus to the nearest town of Santa Maria for a couple of well-earned cold beers, whilst listening to Hotel California (sometimes 5 times in a row - shout out to new posse member Paula!) and other classics on the jukebox while being bombarded by flying beetles.

Still don't get it? Well let me tell you about my animals. Beatrix Otter, who actually goes by the name of Peppa, was probably my favourite. She was basically like a little dog and you could let her out of her enclosure and she would follow you round like a puppy, always wanting attention and biting at your heels. She even made a barking sound, crossed with a squeak, which she would make constantly if you were working in a different enclosure, whilst trying to escape (which she did a lot). And then there was Octavia, the baby howler monkey who was of course absolutely adorable when she clung round your shoulders, but also a bit of a minx when she went a bit schizo and decided to bite you for no particular reason! Capitan the macaw and JR the toucan constantly needed breaking up because they liked to fight, and it often felt like a daily battle to keep the animals at bay! But this is obviously not a petting zoo and the idea is to rehabilitate these animals back into the wild if at all possible, so there is a huge amount of responsibility and it's amazing how quickly you become attached to your animals and protective over their care and well-being.

And then there are the people. They basically range from short- termers like ourselves to long- termers who've been there on and off for 5 years or more. And you can see why. It's like living in a bubble with no notion of whats going on in the outside world, a cross between the tv show 'shipwrecked' and being back at school! There were of course clicks and camp gossip, but also party nights on a Friday and your afternoon off on Saturday spent drinking beer by the river, getting to know these incredible people from all walks of life, with one thing in common - the animals in their care. God I'm beginning to sound like a hippy again but I'm nearly done!

I can't neglect to mention what the park is actually all about and that's the big cats. As we were only there for two weeks we couldn't be assigned a cat to look after as it would be too disruptive for their routine but on our last day we were able to go out and walk with one. I got to go out with a puma called Inti and I have to say I was petrified. She was so huge and when she walked towards you with those big eyes and even bigger teeth I couldn't help but feel like 'dinner'. But then she was so cat like in her other mannerisms that I eventually overcame my fear and was able to stroke her under the chin and let her rub against my legs! Awesome.

So that's it for now. There are so many other stories in these two weeks but I've bored you enough. Needless to say it was an experience I am unlikely to forget and coming back to civilisation has been a bit mind-blowing. This was quickly remedied by a pedicure and some cocktails however! You can take the girl out of the city...

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Posted by christinahicks 08:11 Comments (7)

Salar de Uyuni - Lots of salt and the BEST DAY(S) EVER!!!

Another blog post, another overnight bus journey! But this one has to be the worst in living memory. Ok so it started off pretty average but let's just say I now know why my guide book keeps harping on about paved roads. This one was not. Almost half of the 12 hour journey was on a dirt track under construction which I'm pretty sure did some serious damage to my internal organs with all the bumping, and I don't even want to tell you how much fun it was trying to pee in the onboard toilet, so you can imagine how much sleep we got. On arrival in Uyuni we quickly found a hostel, however it took several painful conversations with 3 separate people, including a 12 year old boy (the kids seem to run Bolivia) to be given a key for our room only to find out that the hot water only worked on one side of the building, and only at certain times. This, we were to learn, is pretty standard in Bolivia! Anyway after a bit of a mooch and some stocking up on warm alpaca wool essentials we booked our tour of the salt flats for the next day, found the best pizza I've tasted in months, and finished off with a trip to the "Extreme Fun" pub (a bit of an exaggeration me thinks, more like "Mildy Entertaining").

So the tour we had booked on was a 3 day, 2 night excursion by 4x4 over the salt flats of Southern Bolivia. Also known as Salar de Uyuni, these are the world's highest and largest salt flats and are basically a 10,000km expanse of salt encrusted brine lakes which take you all the way to the Chilean border. The six of us still travelling together were bundled into the truck along with our driver (let's call him Ted) and our cook (pretty sure she was called Marta) and off we set into the barren wilderness. It is impossible to describe how incredible this place is, with the bright blue sky contrasting with the blinding white of the salt, that literally goes on forever. With nothing else. ANYWHERE. It is practically devoid of wildlife with the exception of the mound of giant cacti growing at "Fish Island" where we stopped for lunch. Something to do with the large area, clear skies and exceptional flatness plays havoc with perspective in photos, so much hilarity ensued as we attempted to create scenes with various props we had purchased earlier (see Facebook, there are literally hundreds). We then stayed in a hotel made entirely from salt and one of the best days ever ended with us sitting around in our llama jumpers, listening to some choice tunes on the iPad, whilst drinking tequila with salt licked straight from the walls of our room!

The next best day ever saw us leave the flats behind but continue down the altiplano taking in stunning lakes, beautiful flamingoes, odd rock formations, and the train track to Chile, all accompanied by hours of sing along in the truck (Ted and Marta must have hated us!). We ended the day at the spectacular Laguna Colorado which is tomato red, I kid you not. It was also spectacularly windy and the temperature was about to drop massively so we were happy to bed down for the night with a couple of bottles of rum and as many layers as humanly possible.

Our final morning was a retardedly early one, and we crammed into the truck wearing ALL of our clothes - it was so cold there was actually ice on the inside of the truck windows! The first stop of the day was at some rather impressive geysers, followed by a quick dip in some thermal springs. It was still only about 7am at this point and bitterly cold so getting out and changed by the side of the road was as much fun as you can imagine. Especially with Ted shouting "Vamos Chicos!" every 5 minutes (this was pretty much all he said to us in the entire 3 days!). We then drove to the beautiful Laguna Verde (a green lake this time) which sits at the foot of the volcano Licancabur that separates Bolivia from Chile. Another image hard to describe, but the volcano was reflected perfectly in the lake and it was so utterly tranquil we all had our own private reflective moments where I thought of you all back home and may have even had a little cry- can't really explain it but it was all pretty immense.

Anyway, this lovely moment was then followed by an agonising day-long journey back across half of Bolivia (or so it seemed, we began to hate that truck!) with nothing to keep us occupied but a ridiculous game of "would you rather...?", some more rock formations, and a weird moment when the boys had to help Ted load a massive tyre found by the side of the road onto the roof, only to then unload it and watch Ted get paid to give it back to the driver we overtook ten minutes later!?! We finally reached a bizarre train 'cemetery' just outside of town, which is literally a graveyard of old trains. I have no idea why it is there but apparently among them is the first locomotive to enter Bolivia and another allegedly robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Hmmmm... nice photos though. One of the best trips EVER thus ended with another visit to the pizzeria and "Mildly Entertaining" pub before we were to part ways the following day :(

Vamos Chicos!

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Posted by christinahicks 13:51 Comments (4)

Lake Titicaca - where music and passion are always in fashio

Apologies for the massive delay in writing, it's been a whirlwind couple of weeks and the internet in Bolivia is sketchy at best. So I last left you in Cusco where I celebrated an epic last night in Peru which resulted in having beer with breakfast and playing table tennis without bats (don't ask). Needless to say the following overnight bus to Bolivia was somewhat harrowing. But the sight of Lake Titicaca breaching the horizon as the sun was rising more than made up for it.

So then, Lake Titicaca is located on the border of Peru and Bolivia. It sits 3811 m above sea level, making it the highest navigable lake in the world - it's literally so big it looks like the sea. We arrived in the small town of Copacabana (we being 2 English girls Emma and Jen, an English guy called Matt and 2 kiwis called Nathan and Ben, who were to be my companions for the next few adventures). Copacabana is a relatively quiet place where we managed to find not only the worst hostel I've yet to stay in, but also the worst lasagne I've ever tasted and the most horrendous beer known to man. Hangover followed by night bus followed by bad beer does not a happy Christina make! Although we did cheer ourselves up by singing along to Barry Manilow's finest at every given opportunity...

Next day we headed off on a boat across the lake to Isla del Sol, a small island believed to be the birthplace of the Incan Sun God. I have never seen a more packed vessel and we were wedged in between giant bags of maize and Bolivian women with full skirts and hats perched precariously atop their heads. We docked on the south side of the island, which is home to 800 families with no cars or paved roads, and decided to walk across to the north side to spend the night. A pleasant afternoon stroll we thought. But oh no, it was close to a 4 hour trek which went endlessly up and down, and probably wasn't helped by the fact that we stopped for a beer at the first opportunity! It was amazingly beautiful however and although we began to fear we would never make it when it started getting dark (news headline "6 tourists lost on Bolivian Island" came to mind), we did eventually reach the other side in the near pitch black, where we found a cosy hostel right on the beach.

We left the island the next morning (after the boys helped push the boat out with the promise of a free ride but were actually rewarded with a bottle of coke!) and returned to Copacabana for the most epic breakfast I've had in a while (PanQueQues!). This was then followed by a short bus trip to La Paz, the highlight of which was having to get off the bus in order for it to be ferried across the lake on the dodgiest looking barge, while we watched on, hoping our belongings would survive the crossing.

Then La Paz - 3,650 m above sea level making it the world's highest administrative capital city. I have to say, yet again I was not overly enamoured with this city. We stayed for a couple of days and all I really managed to achieve here was to replace the iPad charger I had lost with one that didn't work, which I then proceeded to also lose. Bolivia 1 - Christina 0. I had planned on staying here for a few days but the boys were heading off to the salt flats and so, after a quick mothers meeting and an even quicker bag packing session, we decided to go with them. Porque no?! Just before we left however, a chap who was in our hostel in Cusco arrived and what did he happen to have with him but my original iPad charger!?! Christina strikes back! So we left La Paz on a high and headed off to Uyuni...

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Posted by christinahicks 12:26 Comments (2)

Cusco - Baths, Buffets, Guinea Pig and a little place called

Oh. My. God. Cusco is A. M. A. Z. I. N. G. !!! Ever since watching the cartoon the Mysterious Cities of Gold as a child (remember the golden condor?) I have been fascinated with all things ancient and Andean, so you can imagine my excitement at finally reaching the capital of the Inca Empire. Plus, this is where I had arranged to meet up with Pa Hicks, 3 months after leaving England. So pretty momentous stuff - where do I start?!

Well where else but with my first bath... (don't worry, I've not joined the great unwashed, showers are fairly frequent!) Lucky girl that I am, Dad had booked us into a 3 star hotel for his time in Cusco. So I left the humble Point Hostel (highly recommended) and arrived looking slightly out of place at the Hotel Ruinas, a mere two blocks away but a completely different world - the aforementioned bath, TV, duvets, fluffy towels and the luxury of only sharing a room with one other person! Oh and buffet breakfasts- I think I have eaten more in the last week than in the last 3 months! I'll describe some of the highlights of our whirlwind tour below but needless to say it was wonderful to share a week with one of my nearest and dearest, catch up on all the news from home, and of course, get spoilt rotten. Thanks Pa x

So... Cusco... Situated 3400 metres above sea level and another UNESCO World Heritage site, you can see evidence of the ancient brickwork the Inca's are famous for around every corner you turn. This beautiful city is a great base for exploring loads of nearby sights, but also has plenty of places to eat, drink and be merry. There is so much to see and do, bear with me!

Around the Plaza de Armas (main sqaure) there are loads of Spanish colonial buildings including the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, famous for a painting of the Last Supper depicting Jesus and the twelve apostles feasting on guinea pig, a traditional Andean delicacy, which we of course tried. I had two pet guinea pigs as a kid and all they ever did was squeak incessantly so I had no qualms about taking revenge. However they had the last laugh; it did not taste good, and smelt worse.

Surrounding the square are numerous churches, a monastery and the ruins of the Coricancha or "Temple of the Sun", and if all that sounds too much, there are plenty of artisan markets to fill your days with shopping, or you can while away the hours in one of the cafe balconies overlooking the town. There are even two Irish pubs, which we of course had to investigate.

About an hour's walk uphill from the main square is the statue of Cristo Blanco ("The White Christ") which is worth the trek for the views of the city, and is illuminated rather creepily at night. Next to it is Sacsayhuaman, more Incan ruins that are actually pronounced "sexy woman" - somewhat confusing if you don't know this beforehand;
"You looking for sexy woman?"
"Er no... We're trying to find Jesus actually..."

Then there is the Sacred Valley, which encompasses the heartland of the Inca empire, spanning out from Cusco, through indigenous villages, along the Urubamba river. We went on an organised day tour which passed through the colourful market town of Pisac, a stop for lunch in the capital of the province (another impressive buffet-scoffing feat achieved here), onto explore the Incan fort at Ollantaytambo, before visiting the weaving community of Chinchero on the way back. All very 'interesting' as our guide would say, although I don't think he knew any other english adjectives.

And then of course, there is that small place called Machu Picchu. This, as I imagine is the case with most people, was one of my main reasons for coming to Peru. Known as the 'Lost City of the Incas', it was only discovered 100 years ago by an American historian called Hiram Bingham. Since the site was not known to the Spanish conquistadors who ravished the rest of Peru, it is one of the only Incan sites that remains relatively intact, and as such has been voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. And boy, is it spectacular. Dad and I plumped for the option of getting there by train rather than following the traditional Inca trail, and the 3 hour journey, winding through the mountainous Andes was breathtaking. We swapped the train for a bus at the nearby town of Aguas Calientes and this zigzagged up and up until all of a sudden, out of the clouds, looms the mountain of Huayna Picchu, towering over the picture postcard image of the lost city of Machu Picchu.

A. W. E. S. O. M. E.

It really is hard to describe the majesty of it all. I have to admit to feeling that we cheated a little by not doing the trek; I can just imagine how amazing it is to arrive there at dawn after sweating it out for 5 days... but that just gives me a reason to come back!

So all in all, a busy and varied week. I was worried about feeling homesick after Dad left, but even though I do miss you all and wish you were here to see all these amazing things with me, it has just reaffirmed why I'm doing this. I promise to enjoy every single minute for each and every one of you! Next stop, Bolivia?

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Posted by christinahicks 14:10 Comments (0)

Down and Up Again! Colca Canyon and Arequipa

I didn't think anything could top the highs of Huacachina but I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the next few days trekking in the Colca Canyon, Peru's third mist visited destination and the world's deepest canyon.

On arrival in Arequipa from the overnight bus I headed straight to the hostel where I was reunited with the Welsh! Bec and Steve had planned the entire trek and asked if I wanted to join them, little did I know what I had let myself in for... The Colca Canyon is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon! So I dumped my rucksack and we got back on the bus for the most uncomfortable, sweaty, bumpy 6 hours of my life before we reached the village of Cabanaconde. We stayed in a brilliant hostel called Pachamama which had a wood burning fire so we fed ourselves up with the most delicious pizza, mine even had alpaca meat as a topping! It's absolutely freezing at night at 3487m above sea level but the hostel was really cosy and reminded me of a good old English pub in winter :)

Up early the following day, armed with water, snacks and a dubious looking map. You can pay for a tour guide but we had opted to do the trek by ourselves as the routes are well worn and we could go at our own pace. So we headed off to the mirador which marks the start of the descent and oh my god we were high up! I was expecting vertical sides like the grand canyon but this was more like a series of mountains surrounding a valley, but the drop was still very sheer and the distance to the river at the bottom was just over 1000m. While taking in the scene before us, two magnificent Andean condors swooped overhead. To be fair they could have been anything but seeing as the canyon is home to these birds and there was no one there to argue with us, we're going to say they were condors! So down we went, zigzagging across the mountainside, scampering over rocks and avoiding donkey trains. It took about 3 and a half hours to reach the bottom where we dipped our tired feet in the ice cold river water before stopping for lunch at the small village of San Juan de Chuco. The next part was supposedly flat but we ended up having to climb for a couple of hours to reach the next village of Cosnirhua, where Steve had to perform emergency surgery on my toenail with his penknife as it was digging into my other toe! Ok so he trimmed it slightly but his knife was big! It was then relatively easy going for about an hour before we began the descent to our resting place, San Galle, more commonly known as 'the oasis' as you can see swimming pools glittering in the sunlight. It should have been called the mirage however as the path down kept zigzagging in the opposite direction and we never thought we'd get there! But we did and rewarded ourselves with a dip in the pool at Hostel Paradaiso. Little did we know however that the hostel didn't have electricity so dinner was by candle light and cards were played by head torch! The stars were amazing though, set against the mountain backdrop with no other lights for miles.

Up even earlier the following day to attempt the climb back up before the sun got too hot. We were all dreading the ascent as we could see the path up on the opposite side of the canyon as we were coming down and it didn't look easy! Armed with more snacks and iPods for inspirational music we attacked the mountain with gusto! I faired much better than I expected and (almost) enjoyed the climb up, setting the pace by song (thank you Blur and Britney!). It took almost 4 hours with several stops and sense of humour failures - at times we thought we would never make it - every time we thought we were close to the top, another bloody bit of mountain appeared! But make it we did, and what a sense of achievement I felt. Part of travelling for me is about pushing yourself, and bearing in mind the hideous time I had with my ankle, I was really proud to have accomplished something like this. Let's call it my Everest!

Back to Arequipa and the Arequipay Downtown Hostel where we spent the next couple of days recovering with well-deserved pizza, beer and DVDs, and the occasional jaunt around this pretty town. Massive high-fives to Steve and Bec for an epic trek and brilliant times since Banos, now it really is goodbye :( Next stop for me is Cusco, can't wait for all it has in store!

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Posted by christinahicks 16:46 Comments (3)

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