Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Best Hostel I Have Ever Stayed At - Penthouse 1004, Bariloche

Now, I've stayed at a lot of backpackers over my travels. From dingy basements in Thailand and Cambodia to virtual tropical resorts in Bocas del Toro, Panama (post about this tropical hostel is soon to come).

None were better than Penthouse 1004 in Bariloche, Argentina.

Firstly, the location. Penthouse 1004 is, pretty obviously, on the top floor of a big apartment building. It has panoramic views of the whole town, which would be impressive in any city, but Bariloche is a place that must be seen to be believed. Along with the old city in Cartagena this, for me, is the most beautiful city in South America. Luscious deep blue lakes well at the bottom of towering white-capped mountains and low rising clouds. It's typically pristine Patagonia.

The view from Penthouse 1004

Secondly, the staff are incredible. They were more than happy to practice speaking Spanish with me and tried to put on less of an Argentinian accent so that I would understand better. They knew everything about the town: what there was to do, how to get there, where the supermarkets were (essential) etc. They were always super friendly.

The facilities were also amazing. The beds were big and comfortable with plenty of linen to get you through those cold Patagonian nights. The rooms were spacious, the lockers very secure and the kitchen was gigantic with plenty of fridge space, which is (as I'm sure many of you know) a rarity at a hostel. Not only that, but there was freshly baked bread provided for you every morning which, by Argentinian hostel standards, is pretty damn good. Normally, you just get injected with sugar: dulce de leche and media lunas (aka croissants).

My girlfriend, Tam, getting blown away by the beauty of Bariloche

The vibe of the hostel was unrivaled. Everyone (when I stayed there at least) was sociable and friendly but also extremely relaxed. While this is certainly not a party hostel, you're always more than welcome to stay up and hang out with people in the common area which is far enough away from the rooms not to be noisy.

All in all, a great spot. Trust me, I'm not getting paid to do this. Now there's a dream, getting paid to blog...

Monday, 16 March 2015

New York Concrete Jungle

Note: This blog post is obviously not about South America... but I went to New York on the same trip! So there's a few posts lined up about NYC.

There are some interesting social hierarchy dynamics in New York. It is a city which accentuates capitalism's class division and highlights the wealth inequality problems of the USA. It is, after all, the peak of capitalism's empire.  It's the modern version of Ancient Rome or Athens. It's the top of the rock. An extended metaphor seemed necessary:

The concrete jungle at its finest hour.

The pumas and jaguars rule the concrete jungle, rarely seen on the forest floor during the hours of daylight. Instead they hide out in the canopies - comfortably observing. In the early hours of the morning and evening they speed through the shaded trees, virtually unseen.

The anteaters spend most of their day in the canopy. They pray  on the ants, the commoners, and exploit their nests for all they're worth. Their hunger never subsides.

The ants navigate the forest floor during the daylight hours. They work until they die, either from fatigue or eventual consumption by the anteaters. At sundown, they scurry to their homes which are nestled in the canopies below where the puma rests. They live in the middle sized, poorly constructed trees, which are often breaking and crumbling. Many are subtly exploited by the anteater, even when they are in their nests.

The bird worries little about these dynamics, migrating to the rainforest at the best time of year. It observes, but rarely interacts with the puma, anteater or ants. It parks itself in the most lush part of the rainforest, among the puma in the highest, most central canopy. The bird, however, cannot afford to stay in such a well sought after area for long. Soon it will migrate home where it will spend the rest of the year. At home, the bird struggles for food in the local park, dreaming of the luxuries that their migration to the rainforest provides.

Occasionally, you will spot a pig in the rainforest. Confined to the forest floor, the pig longs to be among the canopy. The pig stinks, as pigs tend to do. It is avoided by the ants, the anteaters, pumas and jaguars. It bothers the migrating birds with its relentless cries for help. The foreign birds, unlike the local animals, are not used to hearing these horrid cries. While the ant, anteater, puma and jaguar have learned to ignore the pig and avoid its gaze, the touring birds still startle easily at the sight and sound of a pig.

The pig is reliant on the scraps of others. Unable to reach the canopy's fruits, it relies on the sympathy of the bird, who occasionally drops food for the poor pig.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Horse Track - Tayrona

The horse track - we had been told - was by far the speediest method of arriving at Cabo de San Juan, the cape located at the northern peak of Colombia's most famous national park: Tayrona.

Unfortunately, on the way there we had mistakenly taken the 2.5 hour hike. While the long route was scenic and stunning, we arrived with the sun in a glowing twilight and millions of mosquitoes screaming in our ears.This is a tale, however, of the much more pleasant horse track trail we took after spending the night in a steaming hot tent.

Cabo de San Juan and the jungle behind
The 'proper' path back to the entrance of the national park was marked decisively by a trail of horse manure, which led the way at the many forks and turns in the road. Measuring about one meter wide with walls of dirt surrounding on either side, the track had to by taken in single file. The hike was through a miraculous jungle, seething with life due to the friendly nature of humans in the area. This was in stark contrast to the previous jungle (The Amazon - see this post) which I had been in, where fearful animals were shy and frightened by the often present hunter humans. The cicadas sang, the mosquitoes buzzed and the air was sodden. Due to the small size of my group the wildlife spotting was close to as good as it had been in the Amazon. There were vultures and bush pigs, but most impressively there was a rare species of monkey, only sighted in that part of Colombia, directly above our heads. These monkeys did not see us as a threat. They played with us. They dropped bark from huge trees and engaged us in long staring matches. Their calls were fierce and piercing. Their energy was fearsome, as they launched from tree to trunk to branch.

We moved on with difficulty, as the sun was once again coming down. The end of the path was near and after only one hour. The horse track - so it went - was definitely the fastest method of arriving at Cabo de San Juan

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Sundays Bloody Sundays

I have seen muggings before, both at home and in South America, but the first time that I saw an armed mugging was one of the most frightening.

The Pelourinho on a Sunday morning
Salvador's streets on Sundays are certainly solitary. The air on this particular day was thick and muggy which is typical of north-east Brazil during the mid-year rainy season. The beach seemed like a good option for us, because of the hot weather. There were people around the Pelourinho - the old city and main tourist district - but none of the usual brigade of extravagant locals. It was, mostly, just us gringos.

 The bus stop had a few other tourists there waiting already. A big family of Japanese tourists had all their bags and their cameras out. A man came seemingly out of nowhere and ripped the hand bag off one of the tourists. When he was approached by one of the men he pulled out a knife. Well, it was more of a prison shank than anything else. A sharpened piece of triangular plastic, maybe even a broken piece of glass or a shard of metal. A beer vendor threw a can of beer at the junkie's head which narrowly missed while the thief waved his knife around and thrust it into mid-air so that no one would approach him. He looked fairly competent with the knife, though the scars on his bare torso indicated that he had lost a few knife fights in his time. His look was fierce. Wide-eyes, glowing white it was stunningly terrifying. The junkie sprinted down the street in broad daylight, to the slum areas of Salvador surrounding the Pelourinho.

The beach: we finally made it
It seemed that even the police went to church on Sunday as none of the dozens of heavily armed officers from the previous few days could be seen anywhere. It was shocking that there were none around, given that we were in the main tourist district of Brazil's third largest city during the World Cup.

Ironically, the godly hours of Sunday morning created the perfect conditions for sin and crime outside of the church.

"Gringo, gringo! Onje vai?", yells a cabbie. "Come with me, 20 Reias."

We got straight in the taxi. We didn't even bother bartering.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Struggle for the Amazon

Hunters and nature conservationists always have conflicting perspectives. However, in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon conservationists are trying to change more than perspective: they are attempting to alter the local peoples' innate behaviour and teach them that their traditional ways of living are extremely unsustainable in the modern climate. Tensions between the two groups run consistently high.

"The local people hate me," says Murillo Reis, owner of Tapiche Reserve, one of the largest animal sanctuaries in the Peruvian Amazon. "I know that they do."

Tapiche Reserve

"They think that I'm always telling them what to do, how to behave," the forty-two-year-old said. "They don't like to change their old ways".

Murillo, known commonly by his indigenous name 'Katoo', understands the attitudes of the local people but needs them to change in order to protect his sanctuary from hunters.

"They have every reason to hate me," he said. "I want to hate them too, but I can't."

"These people don't understand that what they are doing is wrong," he said. "They are a simple people who are satisfied with living an easy life... just getting by."

"They don't want to work hard. They don't share your European ambitions."

Katoo, front right, guiding us to his Amazon reserve

Katoo, who grew up in the jungle of Brazil, came to Peru four years ago to start his own sanctuary. Ever since, he has been trying to change the attitudes of the local people.

"I have done many things to try to teach the local people that what they are doing is unsustainable for the environment," he said. "Many initiatives with the community and many educational initiatives."

Three years ago Katoo published brochures and delivered them to the the local town, Raquena. The idea was to educate hunters and gatherers about the impact of taking fertilised turtle eggs.

"A turtle lays about 35 eggs and only about 12 of them are fertilised," he said. "In the brochure it said how to recognise the fertilised eggs."

"I said that if they bring me these eggs then I would buy them for triple the price they would receive for selling them in the market in Raquena," he said.

"They didn't do it. They don't want to be associated with me. I have a bad reputation in Raquena because I am trying to change the way they do things," he said.

The mighty Amazon
When educational initiatives failed, Tapiche Reserve's owner tried to work with the local people. He would allow them to come on to his property to pick Aguahin which they can sell in the markets. In exchange, they would have to plant one seed along the river in order to reforest a once thriving area of Aguahin trees. This would mean more food for monkeys and birds who eat the fruit.

"Of course they didn't do it," Katoo said. "It is an attitudinal problem with these people. They do not think about the future, only [the] now."

This issue is reflected in the mindsets of the reserve's employees, according to its owner.

"I only employ local people. They know the jungle better than anyone and I want to help the community by providing them with jobs," Katoo said. "There are 18 families who come to work for me at various times."

"These people do not understand hard work though," he said. "I pay them a huge wage by Peruvian standards and they do the bare minimum."

"It has always been like this. They have no integrity, no commitment. They are happy with just getting by."

The frustration for Katoo stems from his view that many Peruvian workers are short sighted in their goals.

"They can only work for me for a month because they can not commit to longer," he said. "They need to get back to their simple lives of weaving for an hour, taking a break, having a bath, cuddling the baby."

"They say to me 'Katoo we are coming to help you at the reserve next month'. They don't see it as a job, they think they are helping me," he said.

The Brazillian national blames this short sightedness on a history of indigenous oppression in Peru.

"The local people are used to having things taken away from them," he said. "First it was the Incan oppression and then the Spanish."

"For this reason they take everything as soon as they can."

Monday, 10 November 2014

A Winter's Sunrise over the Salar de Uyuni

A small portion of the sky is glowing velvet and orange. The stars have faded, but the majority of the sky is still black. My eyes are heavy and my feet are numb.
'Stay awake', I say to myself. There's no way I'm missing the sunrise over the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flats.
At this stage, however, my drowsiness might not be the only reason for missing the sunrise. We've pulled over to fix the tyre of another Jeep.
My palms are sweating and my legs are still jittering. I didnt get up at 430 to watch a Bolivian change a tyre.
Paul, a fellow jeep traveler is bouncing in his seat and tapping his shoe. Melanie, Paul's Puerto Rican girlfriend, cracks her knuckles. The Guide gets back in the Jeep.
"Okay, we will be at the salt flats in 20 minutes"
I clench my teeth and hold my breath. Glancing over to my girlfriend her gaze is fixed directly out the window. She is squeezing her hands together, as though cracking a peanut. It had already been pre-dawn for at least 15 minutes.
The driver explains the coral formations around the Salar to us. I absorb none of it, staring blankly at the ripening orange sky.
We reach the outskirts of the flats and the driver pushes the car to 120km per hour. There are no more obstacles or bumpy roads on this desolate plain of salt. We reach the other jeeps in our group.
"What happened?", yells Oscar, the head Guide
"We got lost", our Guide lies.
We step out of the car, teeth chattering and knees buckling. No less than 30 seconds later the sun appears between distant mountains, rising like the sprouting of a spring flower in fast motion.
The warmth hits us between the eyes. A sweet sense of satisfaction swoops over us. The hexagonal borders of the snowy salt flats glow in the morning sun, as though being artificially lit from below. The sky beams purple, orange and yellow. The angle of the morning sun makes our shadows project across the flats for at least 100m behind us. After 3 long days and 2 freezing nights, our shadows had now literally and figuratively completely covered this part of the world.