Monday, 25 June 2012

the mighty falls of igauzu

7th June 2012

Igauzu Falls, Argentina

              Returning to the hustle and bustle of Santa Cruz on the morning of the 2nd June having lived the hammock life in Samaipata for just under a week, I made my way back to the Bi-Modal bus terminal and booked a seat on the next departing service bound for the capital of Paraguay. At 7.30pm that evening, I therefore embarked upon yet another long haul bus journey into the twilight hours arriving in Asuncion around twenty three hours later just as night-time was settling into the strange new city. I spent three unexciting days in this dreary capital and if I'm honest I was not massively in awe of the rundown, mundane and depressing city that I came across and in many ways my arrival there felt like stepping back into the grim side of the 1980's. People had advised me against visiting Paraguay but I hate judging a place based on unfounded hearsay as many of these people had never actually visited the country. Ignoring the warnings and seeing as it was a natural pit-stop en route to Rio, I thought I would at least give the landlocked country a chance to prove itself. It didn't. I won't bore you with the lackluster days I spent in Asuncion as they mostly involved a great deal of writing and eating my body weight in empanadas.  Needless to say, I was eager to move on as soon as possible and the new target I set my sights on was the fabled waterfalls of Iguazu which would hopefully prove to be a far more interesting affair. These mighty falls actually rest at the meeting point of three countries: Paraguay to the West, Brazil to the North and Argentina to the South and although Paraguay is very close to the waterfalls it is only possible to visit them from the Brazilian and Argentinian sides. Each of these two sides also offer very different experiences as viewing them from Brazil gives a wide panoramic perspective of the rushing waters as a whole whereas the Argentinian side allows you to get right up close to the action and the opportunity to look down into the famous Garganta del Diablo or "Devil's Throat"; a massive U-shaped ring where several powerful waterfalls conjoin to form a Herculean display of cascading water. The multitude of cataracts rest deep within the jungle and are located where the strong currents of the Igauzu river tumble over the edge of Southern Brazil's enormous Parana Plateau. Compared to the Niagara Falls, Iguazu is four times as wide, half as high again and carries seven times more water and in 2011 they were voted as one of the "New7Wonders of Nature" to crown them the king of waterfalls. I had been told by nearly everyone who had visited Iguazu that although the Brazilian view points undeniably offer some spectacular vistas, if they were to pick one side the impressive ability to get right up close to the base of the falls on the Argentinian sides gives it the slight edge. With money and time dictating everything I now do, I therefore decided to take their advice and headed towards the small Argentinian town of Puerto Igauzu which is the jumping off point for visiting their side of the falls.

"When we stand at the foot of this world of cascades and, raising our eyes, see 269 feet above us, the horizon filled with a line of waters, this awesome spectacle of an ocean pouring into an abyss is almost frightening." - Swiss botanist Robert Chodat.

Catching the first bus up to the Igauzu National Park, I arrived at the entrance when it opened at 8am and made my way straight towards the small electric train which ferries people back and forth from the main attraction of the park, the Devil's Throat, as I was eager to check out the 82 metre high powerhouse before the crowds descended upon it. Strolling towards the station, a flash of orange was caught in my peripheral vision and turning my gaze to the slender branches of a nearby tree I saw several Toucans perched in the early morning light; their instantly recognisable flaming beaks pointing towards a retreating moon which hung defiantly in the early morning sky:

The Toucan and the moon.
Location of Iguazu.
It was an extremely brisk morning in the national park as I sat rigid on the cold wooden bench of the open-sided train waiting for it to depart. At the stroke of 8.30am, we finally trundled out of the station and into the sunlight heading slowly but surely up to the top of the waterfalls; cutting a wide arc around the roaring ridge of water which was hidden from view by the thick bush. Alighting at the final station, I ran ahead of the crowds - as I had done at Machu Picchu - and headed onto a metal pathway that crossed the Rio Iguazu Superior towards the famed Devil's Throat. Traversing the metal gangway which hovered above the different channels of the river, I came across tree covered islands where dappled sunlight peeked through the branches to the metal path below. Breaking through one final island, the true scale of the Devil's Throat came into view as a huge plume of mist rose from the narrow gullet; joining the ruptured earth with a seamless sky. The roar of crashing water was electrifying as I covered the last 100 metres to a rectangular platform which stretched out to where a powerhouse display of natural forces was in effect. The agitated whitewater poured endlessly over the edge of the ridge; crashing over different ledges before plunging at great speed into the thick mist which erupted from the depths of the gorge. Looking into this morning cloud, a troupe of adventurous swallows dived through the spray; deftly flicking their wings as they raced past the colliding waters:  

Getting on the electric train.
Walking towards the Devil's Throat.
Approaching the Devil's Throat.
Nearly 275 individual waterfalls exist in the park and the main rim stretches out from the Devil's Throat for nearly 4km making it one of the largest collection of cascades in the world. Some of the falls tumble unbroken into the Rio Iguazu Inferior whereas others topple and smash themselves upon different ledges of tough volcanic rock and solidified lava. The amount of waterfalls does vary depending on the time of year and during the height of the rainy season, the river swells to a Poseidon-style flood where over two million gallons of water flow over the Iguazu ridge every second. A truly phenomenal display of nature's power and after retreating back down from the Garganta del Diablo, I spent a couple of hours wandering along metal pathways which escorted me right up to the bases of these staggeringly powerful waterfalls -  too close in fact as I got drenched on more than one occasion! Walking past Myriad islands and the soaring rainbows which had caught themselves among pouring rocks, the other cataracts which sit between the Union and San Martin Falls that flank the ridge were no less impressive than the main attraction I had seen at the beginning of the day. Endless channels of pulverized water were being pumped down into the plunge pools which sit among a rich tapestry of both tropical and subtropical flora and fauna. The craggy outcrops which stand marooned between the plummeting currents serve as a home to exotic parrots and although I didn't see any, the park also has a population of Ocelots and Jaguars which roam the dense forest wilderness. At 1pm I unfortunately had to leave this veritable Garden of Eden as I was due to catch yet another overnight bus although this time the destination would be the final chapter in my story.


Parque Iguazu.
Hundreds of waterfalls fill the park.
Got a little too close to the base of this one and got drenched for stepping too far.
Catching a Rainbow.

A marooned waterfall island.

The falls of Igauzu.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

the samaipata detox

28th May - 2nd June 2012

Samaipata, Bolivia

                      All good things must come to an end and so on the 27th May 2012, I bid farewell to Laura and James for the last time and boarded an overnight bus heading East towards the city of Santa Cruz. With just over two weeks remaining on this trip, I was eager to hit the road again as there were still much I wanted to see and do before stepping onto that plane in Rio; a final step which would bring all of this to a fitting end. With my liver and bank balance reeling from a few heavy nights in the chaos bowl, I decided to make a pit stop in the peaceful town of Samaipata - which rests about 120km West of Santa Cruz - for a few days to relax and conserve money before pushing on towards Paraguay and the mighty falls of Iguazu. With no direct bus to Samaipata from La Paz, it was necessary to head into the heaving metropolis of Santa Cruz where I would then be able to catch a taxi over to the tranquil hill station which nestles within an idyllic forest valley. Arriving into the oppressive heat of Santa Cruz on the morning of the 28th after an epic 17 hour slog from La Paz, I  made my way into the centre of town after managing to catch one of the micros (minivan) which were parked outside the bus terminal; although getting the driver to understand where I wanted to go involved my usual mess of kindergarten Spanish and manic arm gestures. I have really struggled with the language since arriving in South America and in hindsight, if I ever come back, I'm definitely going to take some Spanish lessons before I do so. Although I have done and seen some amazing things while here, I feel that half the experience of travelling rests in being able to talk to local people, hearing stories that really show you how the other side live; something which I have unfortunately been unable to do because of the soaring language barrier that loomed every time I opened my mouth. Although certain basic phrases made their way under my belt, I would love nothing more than to be able to have a proper conversation with any one of the numerous curious locals who have approached me looking for a chat. A shameful 'No hablo castellano' was all I could often muster to my repeated frustration. Looking back, one of the things I loved about India was that a lot of people spoke English there which meant that I was often invited for a cup of chai or some food by inquisitive locals and taking those measured leaps of faith led to some fantastic conversations and experiences. Drifting from one gringo hostel to another within South America has made learning Spanish quite difficult for me as English, in it's all encompassing universality, dominates most conversations in backpacker hostels. In saying that, I met quite a few people who had bravely broken away from the safety bubble of English speaking tourists by doing several home stays with local families which sounds like a fantastic and very effective way of learning a new language and is something I would honestly love to do in the future.

                 After being dropped off by the Plaza 24 de Septiembre, I located the central tourist office to find out the best way of getting to Samaipata and was told that shared taxis left for the hill station from the corner of Omar Chavez Ortiz and Soliz de Olguin and only cost 30Bs (£3) per person, a mere 5Bs more than the local bus. Getting the lady in the tourist office to mark this corner on my map, I strolled down the length of calle Independencia and rounding a corner I came across two other travelers sat in the shade of a crumbling wall outside the taxi office. It soon emerged that the vans didn't leave until five people needed to go and so I took a seat next to them while we waited for others to show up. At around 2pm after chatting with the French hippies who were planning on doing some camping outside Samaipata, two more people finally turned up and we all piled into the van and headed West out of the city. A couple of hours later, after powering our way up the winding valley road, we finally arrived in the small town of Samaipata just as the sun was closing the day. After trying a few fully booked lodgings, I finally settled in at the peaceful Hostel Andorina where I was greeted by the slightly strange but pleasant enough Dutch Andreas who showed me to my room. I spent about five days in this sleepy but charming town and the following photographs document my Samaipata detox.


Welcome to Samaipata.
The location of Samaipata within Bolivia.
On the second night in the sleepy town, the usually quiet central square burst into action to celebrate 400 years since the founding of the town. A stage had been erected where bands and comedians entertained the crowds who had turned up for the event.
Along with a German/French couple I met at the hostel, spent the Wednesday morning at a local animal sanctuary which rested 20 minutes walk out of town. 
Entering the zoo.
The idyllic little sanctuary had a few monkey houses for the more aggressive primates but there were about ten others that were allowed to roam around the grounds as they pleased
Like this little fella.

They were inquisitive little creatures who loved to play with anyone. 
Hostel Andorina were I stayed for £4 a night!
The Andorina courtyard. Stairs at the back of the photograph led up to a balcony where I spent many hours swinging in the hammocks and FINALLY finishing the epic Shantaram.
The main high street.

The central square of Samaipata.

The quiet life.

Five days was enough for me because although I enjoyed the relaxing nature of the place I was eager to get back to the hustle and bustle of a city.

Friday, 22 June 2012

snapshots: the el alto flea market

25th May 2012

La Paz, Bolivia
Back into Bolivia.
The helpful Wild Rover map shows Sorata, Lake Titicaca and La Paz.
I spent another five days in the city of La Paz, indulging in a few more reckless nights after reuniting with Laura and James who had by all accounts been having  a very relaxed time in the small hillside town of Sorata. The days in the black hole of the Wild Rover hostel passed once again as a blur but on the Thursday, after hearing about a massive flea market which takes place in the suburb-turned-city of El Alto high up on the ridge of La Paz, I hopped in a small mico (taxi van) and made my way up the bowl to have a look.
El Alto became a certified city in it's own right in 1986 and is one of the world's highest major settlements peaking at the breathtaking - quite literally -  height of 4200 metres. The haphazard city of a million souls has a rough edge to it and the numerous protests and strikes that occur down in the bowl usually originate here. The reason being is that El Alto controls the only road that enters La Paz meaning that the inhabitants here can shut down the capital at the drop of a hat; a powerful geographical tool they employ frequently and violently.
The dusty, unpaved streets are lined with stalls every Thursday and Sunday.
Tracing the line of the La Paz ridge, the dilapidated city is being built slowly. Very slowly. Sometimes so slowly that they forget to finish building. Three alleyways snaked through the market lined with hundreds of stalls selling everything from ripped off DVD's to shoelaces.
The market is divided into specific sections whether you're looking for books, clothes, DVD's or old hub caps...
Between the rows of stalls large groups of people were huddled around the Bolivian Del Boys who gave their animated speeches to intrigued audiences. This guy was a particularly smooth operator in his attempts to flog some dodgy perfume.
Life in El Alto.
The flea market floods the streets as all the houses set up their own stalls. Need a car door? Get yourself to this house!
One man's trash is another man's treasure has never been more appropriate a saying for the goods on offer at El Alto. 
In the distance the snow-capped peak of Mount Illimani rises imperiously over the area and the views of the 'Golden Eagle' are even more impressive from the ridge of El Alto.
Heavy Load.
Seeking shade.
The El Alto donkeys.
A railway line slices the market in two where it joins the Cemetery District of La Paz.
Che Guevara saw me off back down into the pit of La Paz.

a sunrise over take titicaca

22nd May 2012

Puno, Peru

                 Returning to Cusco at about 1am on the 21st May 2012, tired but content having fulfilled my Machu Picchu pilgrimage, it suddenly occurred to me that my time  in South America was rapidly running out. Double checking the flight details, I saw that only three weeks remained before I had to be on a plane back to England which departed from the city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil over 3000km away across the continentThe whole width of South America therefore needed to be traversed in about twenty days and with next to no money for flights it would have to be conquered through some very, very long coach journeys. Waking around midday, I checked out of the Bright hostel and got myself down to the Cusco bus station to catch the next available bus to La Paz - returning to the scene of the crime so to speak- where I planned on catching up with Laura and James who had returned there for a few days before making a break for Rio. On the way back to the Bolivian melting pot that is La Paz, the bus stopped briefly in the city of Puno which sits proudly on the banks of the vast Lake Titicaca; a huge expanse of water that spreads itself across the border connecting Peru with Bolivia. Sitting at about 3800m above sea level in the heart of the Andes mountain range, it is both the highest lake in the world and indeed the largest lake in South America. Arriving in Puno while dawn was breaking, I was treated to a magnificent light show as the sun rose  from the waters of Titicaca to produce a symphony of colour for the lens of my waiting camera. I hope you enjoy the photographs!