Monday, December 6, 2010

Natural highlights III

The third edition of "Natural highlights" brings photos from the last part of the trip - from Chile, through Bolivia and Peru to Venezuela.

Goal of the sequel "Natural highlights" is to show you some of the beautiful natural sights the expeditioners managed to photograph.

May the Maya be with you! :)

Stark landscape (Chile)

Mountains rising up from desert (Bolivia)

Moon like panorama (Bolivia)

Bubbling mud (Bolivia)

Stone tree (Bolivia)

Yellow carpet along the lagoon (Bolivia)

Red mountains (Bolivia)

Thermal baths (Bolivia)

Colorful peaks and crystal clear sky (Bolivia)

Shallow lagoons full of flamingos (Bolivia)

Sun rise in the desert (Bolivia)

Salt hexagons (Bolivia)

Countryside bursting into life (Bolivia)

Shades of blue on lake Titicaca (Bolivia)

Sun set over the island (Bolivia)

Lake from above (Venezuela)

Jungle all around (Venezuela)

Water falling from 1000 meters (Venezuela)

Table mountains (Venezuela)

Before the rain (Venezuela)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Venezuela III (September 21st - September 26h)

Arriving to Caracas again after almost three months felt quite nostalgic. Chavez's posters were updated and socialist slogans changed, but the atmosphere remained. Expeditionists exchanged dollars for bolivars at the airport and took a taxi to bus station Terminal del Oriente, where they split - El Fredovito went to the beautiful beaches around Mochima and Don Madonarra and Miguel Hudeiro took a bus to Ciudad Bolivar.

The adventure of Miguel and Don Madonarra started earlier than they thought. The bus reached Ciudad Bolivar 5 hours later than announced, which meant they found themselves without accommodation in the middle of the night at 2 a.m. After several unsuccessful attempts to find a hostel or wake up some receptionists, they ended up under a palm tree in the corner of Plaza Bolivar, where they slept till sunrise. However, the awakening turned to be quite stylish as the sun illuminated colorful buildings, first people went to work and the life in the city began. After finding a proper hotel for the next night, they get some empanadas with orange juice on the street and sat down at river bank of Orinoco. The rest of the day was spent walking around the city and arranging all the matters necessary for a three day trip to Canaima.

Don Madonarra & Miguel Hudeiro in their bedroom

Colorful architecture of Ciudad Bolivar

Fisherman at Orinoco's river bank

There is only one way to get to the National Park of Canaima - by a small Cessna airplane. This 6-seat metal box with wings became a source of several funny moments, which are, however, better to tell personally. Nevertheless, the views of the landscape below were breathtaking. The roads slowly disappeared and were replaced by red mountains, blue water of Embalse de Guri and finally large green areas of jungle with table mountains occasionally sticking out signalized that National Park of Canaima is near.

Don Madonarra in front of Cessna airplane

Check out the fuel!

Canaima waterfalls from the airplane

The program for the first day was a boat trip through the jungle to the world largest waterfall, Salto Angel. Four hours on a red colored river was an experience by itself as it brought spectacular pictures of the misty table mountains rising from the savanna and jungle around. It took one more hour of climbing up through the jungle to see Salto Angel in its full majestic beauty. The water was falling from almost one kilometer height, on the way down crashed with the clouds and turned into a shower of small raindrops only to merge again in the river below. This view definitely belonged to one of the highlights of the trip.

The river ride to Salto Angel

Don Madonarra and Miguel Hudeiro below Santo Angel water fall

Locals at work, table mountains behind

The night was spent in hammocks in a camp not far away from the waterfall. In the morning, the two expeditionists took some more photos and then jumped on a boat back to Canaima. This small town lives from tourists, but for some reason there were only very few of them (despite the high season) - the beach along Canaima lagoon was therefore almost empty. The adventurers sailed again on the lagoon to see Sapo and Sapito waterfalls both from above and also from behind. Totally wet but happy from such a unique experience they dried back at the camp and enjoyed exceptionally delicious dinner provided by the tour operator. The last day in Canaima was rather relaxed with a free program to see the beach and the town itself.

Waiting for the dinner in Canaima

Behind Sapito water falls

Cuddling monkeys

In the meantime, El Fredovito took a bus to Cumaná. His arrival situation was unfortunately not much better than of Don Madonarra and Miguel. Although he arrived a bit earlier than they did (but still ca. 3 hours behind the schedule), all hostels were closed or full and streets terribly dark. It felt like really being back in Venezuela, when he was told to "really be careful and not go anywhere" by three (unrelated) drivers passing by when he tried to step out of the bus station. Eventually he managed to find a room, but ended up paying ridiculous $15 for it (the most for the whole trip and about three times the normal price).

Morning street hustle in Cumaná

Next three days spent around beach villages of Mochima and Santa Fe were the cultural highlight of the whole trip. Being alone in rather small villages resulted into being approached by many local people and led to lot of chats and invites for beers, lunches and dinners. Encounters with local characters were really diverse - such as guy speaking fluent German telling his life story, an entrepreneur knowing a lot about the relationship between the US and Venezuela, a local botanist (btw. a child of Swiss father and Austrian mother) explaining how his job was related to Chavez and many more. Those few last days were an amazing experience and gave El Fredovito new insights on life in Venezuela. After those few days, he was sure that this is definitely not his last time in Venezuela.

Pelicans around Mochima

One of several new friends :)

Sea life in Santa Fe

Besides all that, the beaches were fantastic - Mochima is surrounded by a national park full of small islands approachable by boat only and containing white beaches surrounded by crystal clear sea. They proved to be a perfect place to relax and reflect over the trip and the upcoming new life era.

The ultimate place to relax and think

It took one more day that the whole crew again reunited in Caracas at Plaza Bolivar - the very first sight of the whole expedition. Coincidentally, it was a day of parliament elections, bringing traffic confusion and many closed shops. Luckily the adventurers found a restaurant to finally try the typical Venezuelan pabellon criollo before they hurried to the airport. Their patience was tested there heavily while waiting in a never ending line for check-in as only two counters were opened for the whole airport. Finally, they successfully overcame all the bureaucracy (counting 4 security checks) and enjoyed the transatlantic flight to Frankfurt through Madrid.

May the Maya be with you! :)

Inside subway in Caracas

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Travel insight: Poor safety in Latin America

To start off, there is no such thing as "poor safety in Latin America" - discussing such topic would make completely no sense. Why? 

First of all, as in any other part of the world, vast majority of problems are to a large extent very local. Problems are usually connected to specific parts of larger cities (and usually at night) or - much less frequently - to troubled regions with long-term political disputes. Talking about safety of a continent thus makes no sense. When there is shooting in Guayaquil, Ecuador or a deadly disease in the valleys of Colombia, it does not mean that there are shootings all over Ecuador and everybody in Colombia is dying. Natural logic, however not that many people seem to follow.

Second of all, many problems are extremely publicized. People in the West do not want to hear that there was a successful cow breed in the mountains of Bolivia this year or a feastful parade in Cuzco, Peru. People prefer to read that 50 people died of earthquake in coastal Chile or that there had been unrest connected with elections in Venezuela. Again, very natural, however when people continue to read only such news (and there is a large lack of other types of news in Western mainstream media) they soon - sometimes inconsciously - come to the conclusion that "just bad stuff is happening there". It is not that "there is just bad stuff happening there" - it is too much writing about catchy (and often unimportant and/or highly political) topics and lack of publicity of the "good stuff" that causes incredible damage to public image of many developing countries.

Bearing in mind local nature of many problems and their ridiculous publicity, here are few tips for safer travel anywhere. After all, travelling safe in Latin America is about decreasing the (already low) probability of problems as travelling anywhere else.
  • Do not get paranoid and use common sense. This is not Hollywood movie. The probability of you being mugged by a bloodthirsty bandit is the same as you being consequently rescued by Chuck Norris or Steven Saegal.
  • Observe, do like the locals do and follow their advice. Different country means different rules. If you are walking at night in a neighborhood and do not meet anybody what so ever, there is probably a reason why people don't go there. Also, when you are the only one not wearing your backpack on your chest, do not be surprised if you find it empty. You name it. It makes lives of everybody much easier if foreigners stick to what local people consider "normal". 
  • Minimize your "visual net worth" and watch your stuff. If you walk around with a $500+ camera or dressed in latest fashion, you have probably moved couple of dozens places up in local competition for being mugged.
  • Know the current situation, not the rumors or history. Large majority of developing countries dealt with their most painful issues until the 1990's. That means that for 10-20 years, those countries are battling common social and economic problems, rather than shooting rebels in their cities.
  • Be constructively critical to the bad stories you hear from other people. As it happens with all rumors, they get bigger and more serious while passing from one person to another. Furthermore, majority of those "victims" broke at least one of the rules mentioned here. Plus, how many people will say "I made a mistake, I was dumb" and how many will rather come up with outrageous stories about what happened to them?
Thanks to following rules above, nothing happened to the Maya crew during the whole three months. Even if you stick to all the rules and still get in trouble, be ready for it. It can happen anywhere. Carry little money and valuables on you and back up your photos often. In case of a robbery, follow general wisdom and just hand over everything peacefully. Those people - no matter how despicable their behavior is - are usually trying to make their living and are not up for a killing spree.

May the Maya be with you! :)

Tranquillo. Stay alert, but take it easy.
Embrace this wonderful region to the fullest.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Peru IV (September 15th - September 20th)

It took only two more hours from the borders to reach Puno, tourist hub at Peruvian side of lake Titicaca. During the afternoon the adventurers managed to arrange a two-day boat trip to floating islands on lake Titicaca and even explore the city a little bit.

A sheep guarding private property in Puno

Although the boat trip looked quite overcrowded at the beginning as there was more than 20 people in the group, the explorers experienced pretty nice and relaxing moments in the upcoming two days. The first morning was spent on a boat visiting Uros floating islands - couple dozen of islands completely made of totora, straw-like plant growing abundantly around the lake. A few centuries ago, those islands were originally used by local people as a hideout from aggressive Inca expansion. Nowadays, they are mostly just a tourist attraction although they still have several hundred permanent inhabitants. It wasn't that much authentic experience, but it was still impressive and funny at the same time to walk on a soft surface knowing there is water just one meter below your feet.

Islas Flotantes de Uros

Local girl playing with a bucket

Nets for keeping caught fish fresh

Inhabitants of floating islands

Following several long hours of sailing were spent on the top of the boat sharing stories and insights with other travellers from the Czech Republic, Karel and Hanka. In the early afternoon, they finally reached Isla Amantaní, where local families were ready to provide them basic food and accommodation until the next morning. Walking around the island was quite peaceful, but the views including the sunset couldn't compare to the ones already seen on Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side of the lake. However, the real highlight of the day was an evening party in ponchos. It was theatrical, ridiculously touristic and too organized, but still funny to be forced to dance with old local ladies and trying to copy their furious rhythm.

Farmer coming back from work on Amantaní

Enjoying lunch in local village

Poncho party :)

El Fredovito and Miguel Hudeiro in a candlelight

There was just one more stop on the way back during the last day of the trip - Isla Taquile. Dwellings and overall level of development didn't look so ingenious as the previous day, but it was a dressing culture that made this community famous enough to become a UNESCO sight; namely their tradition to wear colorful hats and other clothing accessories to show whether you are single, married or belong to a local authority. And they really wear them publicly all the time! Check the picture to get a glimpse of how majestic the local authorities look like.

Guide showing a hat of political authority (on the left) and local authority (on the right)

Adventurers at famous stone arc at Isla Taquile

Fishing boat on lake Titicaca

Back in Puno, university celebrations filled the streets with music, colors and comical dresses. After enjoying the atmosphere and buying few more souvenirs, the adventurers soon went to bed to be ready for an early morning bus to Arequipa.

University celebrations in Puno

There were only a few hours available for sightseeing in Arequipa. This city made of white volcanic stone offered mainly beautiful architectural highlights. The expeditionists found enough time to admire the main cathedral from inside accompanied by an always giggling female teen guide and walk a little bit around plazas and white streets. Afterwards, they had to go to a bus station to catch an overnight bus to Lima.

Plaza de Bolivar in Arequipa

Inside the cathedral in Arequipa

The program in Peru's capital Lima was rather relaxed, including a walk around several plazas in colonial style, Museum of Inquisition, catacombs and a visit of local cinema, watching Resident Evil 4.

Vivid example of inquisition practises

The next day the slow relaxing pace continued. The expeditionists arranged a few urgent matters on the internet and then enjoyed long awaited KFC feast that consisted of 18 pieces of chicken, 12 chicken nuggets, 8 hot wings, 8 hot shots, 8 bags of french fries, 2 salads, 4 Pepsi Colas, 3 apple pies and 3 ice shakes in total! Although fighting bravely, the adventurers stomachs couldn't manage to process it all at one time, so they had to take a couple of wings as a snack to the airport, where they took a flight to Caracas, Venezuela with an overnight stop in Bogotá, Colombia. Only one last week until the end of the trip!

May the Maya be with you! :)

Don Madonarra and El Fredovito at KFC feast