Monday, July 27, 2009

Rio ramblings

As Aerolineas kept postponing my departure date from Rio, I wondered if I might become like a character in a Somerset Maugham novel, a permanent resident of the Hotel Martinque in Rio de Janeiro, never quite managing to leave as I worked my way through the minibar.

The conference had been good, catching up with old friends in the Portuguese colonial ambience of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. I could start the morning with a swim, though this involved crossing 6 lanes of traffic (three of which usually reversed direction during my swim).

One evening I saw the sunset from the Sugarloaf, the pillar of rock dominating Rio's harbour entrance, and on a Saturday joined the crowds on the cog railway to the Corcavado, the figure of Christ with arms outstretched - where roving priests conferred traditional blessings, and the less devout had their photos taken in the traditional arms outstretched pose.

Rio does however have an edginess to it: I never felt unsafe, but was constantly being warned of the dangers. You can glance up through the gaps between the apartment blocks and hotels lining Copacabana beach and see the favellas, the poor hillside housing reputed to be drug gang territory. Apartment entrances are surrounded by steel cages where the middle class inhabitants can wait for a taxi without fear of being mugged.

The flight delay gave me a couple of days inland at Petropolis, which has a small town feel despite the presence of old imperial summer palace, where families scoot around the elegantly furnished in felt snowshoes issued to protect the mahogany floors (and possibly aid the polishing!). After walking to the Véu da Noiva waterfall in the Serra dos Órgãos National Park - like the Pararaha with bromeliads - I was walking down the road wondering when a bus would appear. A 4WD drew up beside and the driver offered a lift. This was good - I'd get to the town at least, and two or three bus connections would see me back in Rio. But as it turned out my benefactor was on his way to a meeting in Rio, so after an hour or so I was at a metro station in central Rio.

On the last day, I hired a bike and cruised the beaches on the excellent cycle path path, passing the ornate sand sculpture memorial to Michael Jackson, various escolas of volleyball, and the dedicated surfers on the Ipanema break. Then it was off to BA, and yet another hotel stay at Aerolineas' expense...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

La Paz

Mirador Killi Killi, La Paz

Finding your way in La Paz is easy - because the city is in the bottom of a deep canyon, you just walk downhill and you´ll be in the Prado, the main street. At least that was the theory on my last visit in 1983, so when the minivan from Coroico dropped me off at the outskirts of the city, I just started walking down hill. After half an hour (and an interesting interlude watching mass Saturday afternoon line dancing in a public park) I realised that the crater rim was still not that far above me, I hadn´t got anywhere I recognised, and it was starting to get dark. I hailed a taxi, and after a while realised that it was just as well - my downhill route was taking me into a different canyon, probably undeveloped in 1983.

For all that La Paz has changed, the traveller nexus of Sagarnaga Street and the witches´market is still the well tried combination of pie shops, ethnic clothing, and cheap(ish) hotels. You can purchase all the freeze dried llama fetuses you need, just next to the ATM and around the corner from the Internet Cafe.

Another change is the indigenous renaissance. The dress style of the traditional Aymara woman, the Chola, has become chic, and Bolivia has an indigenous president, Evo Morales, an Aymara coca farmer. In NZ terms, this is a bit like Pita Sharples becoming prime minister - assuming Pita had a background in marijuana growing!

In preparation for moving on, I decided to let get my shoes cleaned professionally. La Paz shoeshine boys are a daunting breed. They patrol the main plazas in squadrons of half a dozen or so, dressed in black, with black balaclavas so that only their hands and eyes are visible. The practitioner who tackled my walking shoes, bearing the dust of several days of mountain biking and hill walking, did an excellent job - a stiff brushing, application of a special potion to restore the nap, and a retouching of the rubber edges. I was impressed, though less so when I discovered that the price he´d quoted me in pesos was actually dollars, rather than the Boliviano rate that I´d thought was remarkably cheap.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Searching for a Laguna in Sorata

At the top of the pass, the minivan driver pulled over, reached into the glovebox, and retrieved a bottle of spirit. He leaned out the window, sprinkled some on the front wheel and took a swig himself. The ritual sacrifice to Pachamama must have worked, because the 1400m winding descent, the final stage of the four hour trip from La Paz to Sorata, was accomplished safely.

Sorata is a small town perched at 2700m on a ridge descending into the gorge of the San Christobal valley, surrounded by steep slopes supporting small farming settlements, everywhere the view dominated by the icy 6000m summits of Illampu and Ancohoma. The climate is a lot milder than La Paz - in the evening the locals gather to socialise in the town square, dominated by a statue of Adolf Hitler: which on closer inspection turns out to be Bolivia´s 1940-43 president - presumeably the Adolf look was cool then.

At the Hostal Mirador, I score a penthouse with views up to the peaks and down the valley. At breakfast on the terrace, I chat to an Israeli-Czech trekking group who are setting out on a 3 day trip to Laguna Chillata, nestled under the slopes of Illampu. According to the guidebook, the return trip to the Laguna can be done in a day with an early start, so I decide 9am is early and climb up from the village to pick up a road sidling around into a mountain valley. I pass a group of builders putting in the first floor of rammed earth house, working their way around the wall with a box frame and cramming earth into it. As I sidle up the valley, I spot the Israelis and Czechs disappearing over the far ridge. The trail drops down to a bridge crossing the river descending from Illampu. Bolivian bridge builders could probably teach DOC a thing or two: rather than flying in expensive wires and aluminium frames that can only take one person at a time, a bolivian bridge consists of two locally felled mature eucalyptus trunks with earth, foliage, and gravel rammed tight on top. The result is guaranteed to hold a laden mule and accompanying campesinos.

From the bridge I climb steeply up to Kholani village, reflecting that the air might be thicker than in La Paz, but it´s still less than my body needs for this kind of exercise. When the local Kholani children establish that I don´t have any caramellos to dispense, they consent to have their photos taken on their homemade trolley. According to the route description, Kholani is 2 hours into the trek, and I´ve been going more like 4. So when a local in a Brazil football shirt pushing a wheelbarrow suggests I might like to check the "ruinas" forty minutes up the hill, I decide a change of objective is in order.

This trail climbs steeply past corn and pea plots, being inspected by a wheeling turkey vulture looking for snacks. I´m reflecting that at my elderly pace the forty minutes is more likely to be an hour and half, when a grandmother storms past me on her way to clear rocks from the family plot, carrying a 2m steel prybar, her shawl/backpack filled with farming implements. Eventually I top out on the gentler slopes, and sure there are rock walls and structures scattered around. Possibly not ruins in the archaelogical sense, but certainly they have the look of walled gardens - perhaps abandoned in collapse of the Tiwanaku civilisation, but also possibly abandoned in the last few decades of rural depopulation. But it´s a wonderful spot - across the high terraces, childre are keeping an eye on family sheep flocks. Above are the icecliffs of Illampu and Ancohoma, below is Sorata, and the gorge leading out to the Amazon lowlands.

After a rest I drop back down the route, startling wild guinea pigs that zig zag along the track. The housebuilders have added another metre to their wall, in three nights, the chief architect tells me, he´ll be sleeping in his new house. I haven´t made it the laguna, but I do make it back to the main square for a cerveza before dark. So has Pachamama reversed the curse of seat 13B? Only time will tell...

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Extreme downhill in the Valley of the Souls

The next stage of my mountain biking in Bolivia was the chance to join Juan and Willy from Colombia, along with Ben our guide, on some single track riding. Gravity describe this as ¨secret single track¨so I´d better be vague about where German, our driver took us except that it´s in the general vicinity of the ¨valley of the souls´which had a resonance when I realised that my companions were decking themselves out in full face helmets and body armour for the descent. I decided that at 60 I was too old to learn to ride in this kind of gear, and simply took a conservative approach to the drop offs and switchbacks.
It was a magnificent route though - dropped down scrubby slopes to a small village backdropped by red ironsand cliffs, then sidled around a giant version of the Putangirua Pinnacles and down a switchback into a salt encrusted riverbed that led us out to meet with German for a picnic lunch under a tree in the plaza of a small village. The afternoon´s entertainment was a chance to zizz off in the back of the truck whil we drove back up to the other side of the valley, past pre-inca monoliths, to a high point overlooking cultivated terraces. A fast run through a village (keeping the speed up to avoid the menacing dogs) to the start of a knife edge ridge. The single track (which also seems to be the local´s walking route to the nearest shops) follows the crest of the ridge, with amazing dropoffs on each side. I´ll be frank and say I walked a lot, but it was a great experience, and the Paceña beers when we met German in the valley floor topped off a magnificent day.

Less magnificent was the curse of seat 13B striking again: a dose of travellers´diarrhea that followed the night after, so the last couple of days have been resting up within range of the hotel toilet, and drinking lots of fluid...

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The worlds most spectacular ride?

I made it La Paz, and rode with Gravity down the ´Worlds Most Dangerous Ride´.

There´s a history here - in 1983 I walked the Takesi Trail, an old Inca road that goes from La Paz over the Andean divide and down into the jungle at Coroico. I got a ride with about 20 other people on the back of truck loaded with fertiliser sacks, up the road from Coroico to the pass at La Cumbre. The guidebook described the road as ´picturesque´and it was certainly that - cut by Paraguayan prisoners of war in the 1930s into the sheer bush clad cliffs. Despite the spectacular drop offs, it didn´t seem that dangerous, but this was maybe because I was concentrating on hanging on to the truck.

25 years on, the route has become a prime biking route, that I suspect is having a tourist economic impact that makes the Otago Rail Trail look like a cake stall. The tourist area of La Paz is lined with companies offering to take you up to the pass, give you a mountain bike and pick you up at the bottom. I went with Gravity who invented the ride, labelling it the World´s Most Dangerous Road, from a World Bank Report that was justifying the funding for a new road,which was completed in 2006.

The first bit of the ride struck me as the most dangerous - a hundred odd cyclists heading down the highway weaving in amongst trucks buses and cars. After we turned off on the old road, having dropped down from alpine landscape of the pass, the route seemed a good gravel road, and of course with the new road there is little opposing traffic. Our guide, Phil, got our group down in good order,with plenty of time to admire the spectacular views down into the jungle.

Ended up at small animal park in the valley, where the Gravity MTB ride ends and has lunch. I spent the night in a cabin there rather than return to La Paz. They rescue wild animals that have been captured and abused, and try to reintroduce them to the wild. But I suspect the animals know when they´re onto a good thing - I left my door ajar for a moment in the morning and a monkey was in checking whether there was anything interesting in my gear! Walked up an old inca trail morning to get to Coroico- there was a big concert on so the town is packed, they´d set up a sound stage on the football field, a spectacular spot looking out over three mountain valleys.

Got a minivan back over the new road - equally spectacular, but rather more luxurious than my 1983 trip!