Travels with a Tapir: The Amazon Jungle

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Pitifully late, this. But you’ll notice that the blog leaves us in the Bolivian saltflats. There’s much more to tell, especially if you’ve found this page looking for how to take the kids to Bolivia.

So let me continue with our trip to the Amazon Rainforest – a trip that only those with strong stomachs for flying should attempt.

We flew from La Paz to Rurrenabaque on the type of plane that makes you hold your breath, with excitement or fear depending on your temperament. Flying over the Andes on a tiny plane feels momentous (particularly if you’ve ever read that book about the Andes plane crash where the survivors ate everyone else).

When you travel with children, you often find yourself having to pretend you’re not scared. Clover’s repeated ‘I don’t like it, I don’t like it’, forced me to grit my teeth cheerfully and get on with it. “Why don’t you just read your book darling?” I suggested, as another mountain peak sailed past within touching distance.

At Rurrenabaque, they have to clear the wild pigs off the runway so we can land. We’re deep into jungle town – one paved road, a few restaurants and deep humidity after the heights of La Paz. After one night in a local hotel, we take a boat into the Madidi National Park for our one Amazon Jungle experience of the trip.

Why the Bolivian Amazon? It’s cheaper and less slick than Brazil. Also, the Madidi lodges are run by indigenous families, who are committed to keeping their rainforest protected.

First surprise about the rainforest? It’s unseasonably cold. Which seems a little unfair. It’s also a bit wet. The camp is comfortable, but with no electricity in our hut, and certainly no mobile signal, we’re far from home.

At Madidi, you can go into the jungle, or you can wait for the jungle to come to you. This it does at regular intervals, particularly mealtimes. The wild pigs are regular, and smelly, visitors, turning up to forage at all times of the day. They communicate by clicking their jaws, and then run off into the forest after they’ve eaten their fill.

Then there is Tony, the tapir, who our guide keeps insisting is wild. Tony is not wild. He is a disgruntled teenage tapir who was abandoned by his mother and brought up at Madidi, Sometimes he goes walkabout for a night, but mostly he turns up regularly to snaffle bananas from the kitchen and follow the guests around. Clover and I will never forget our Madidi moment when we found Tony trying to get in the loo with us (remember, he’s now about the size of a small horse) and I nearly shut the door on his nose.

Guides from the Lodge take us into the jungle for day and night walks. We spot monkeys of various types in the trees, and hear more. It’s bizarrely thrilling to see stick insects in their natural habitat (turns out it’s not a plastic case in a primary school classroom) and see leaf cutter ants scurry away with their prizes.

The girls learned to make jewellery from rainforest seeds, and insisting on tubing in the piranha-infested river, even though the water was freezing.

On the river we spotted an injured capybara (probably from a jaguar bite) and her babies. The guide was bleak about the babies’ chances – but the girls were hopeful they’d make it. We also saw a really wild tapir (not Tony) wandering around at the side of the river.

The sheer vastness of the Amazon jungle is hard to comprehend, as is the speed of its shrinkage. But it was amazing to see how the ecosystem fitted together, and to spend time with people who live at its heart. We can only hope there will be something left of it when the girls want to come back with their own children.

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Bolivia II: Salt flats and stargazing

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IF you want to scare yourself before going on a family holiday, you can always rely on Google to help you out. Try ‘Bolivian Saltflats’ if you really want a fright – the internet can furnish you with plenty of lurid tales of drunk drivers veering off course, temperatures of minus 30 and discomfort all round.

Didn’t stop us, though it did ensure we did our research beforehand. Unfortunately, once you get out to the Salar de Uyuni – a saltflat so big you can see it from space – any thought of a comfortable time pretty much goes out of the window (you’ll be keeping that window shut by the way, its perishingly cold).

So, like everyone else, we flew on a tiny plane to a tiny airport heated only by one of those patio heaters so beloved of British smokers in the winter months (did I mention it was chilly?) and booked ourselves onto a three day excursion out into the Salar. I’d done my homework, so we picked an operator with an impeccable safety record, called Salty Desert Aventours. If I couldn’t do anything about the discomfort, we could at least ensure that we didn’t get a drunk driver.

It emerges, however, that pretty much every salt flat tour is the same. You are loaded into a Toyota Landcruiser (in our case with two very lovely Colombians, since there weren’t really enough Spanish speakers to go round, though I think the girls would have preferred an English-speaking group) and herded across the flats.

First stop is the train graveyard, home to locomotives shipped all the way from the UK- and left to rust. They are the world’s best playground, as long as you don’t mind a lack of health and safety. The girls will never see the school climbing wall the same way again.

Then it’s off to the flats themselves stopping in the middle to take awesome pictures of yourselves with giant dinosaurs and toys.

These pictures are achieved using a technique known as ‘forced perspective’ – but Father Ted fans amongst us just refer to it as the ‘these are small, those are far away’ technique (hint, the salt flats are very, very flat, wide and reflective). The driver will be much better at taking these pictures than you will be. He probably has his own plastic dinosaur, but the girls were particularly thrilled with the shots of them whispering into Sheepie’s ear and kissing Monkey.

Some stats for the salt flats. The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, and its nearly 4000 metres above sea level (that’s high). The hexagonal salt crusts stretch across 4000 square miles and cover over half of the world’s lithium reserves. You don’t need to know too much about mobile phone and battery production to worry that this area isn’t going to stay beautifully preserved for too much longer.

For now, though, it’s indescribable- though that’s not going to stop me trying. Day one, after the silly pictures, included some cold bubbling springs (hot ones come later), some glorious lakes and a night at a hotel made entirely of salt. This was about as cold and cheerless as you imagine it might be. Turns out salt beds are not that comfortable. Who knew?

So after the ‘luxurious’ salt hotel, I was dreading Day 2, described as the ‘cold and uncomfortable’ bit of the trip. This is where temperatures really began to drop as we drove past incredible lakes rich with flamingos on the Chilean border (see last week’s episode of Planet Earth II).Weird landscapes that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Dr Seuss book made me wonder whether this was where he got his ideas from. The girls loved watching the flamingos, and tolerated the weird-coloured lakes (appreciation of scenery appears to come quite late in the childhood development scale). I tried very hard to cope with the fact there was no mobile phone signal. Trying to read a proof for the Mail on Sunday on the Bolivian salt flats turned out to be a bit too tricky.

We spent that night in an approximation of a youth hostel, filled with a polyglot mix of nationalities, including the brother of the family we’d been hanging out with in La Paz, the former manager of one of the estate agents down the road from us in London, and a French/American family whose children instantly palled up with the girls. It didn’t quite get down to minus 32, but it was insanely cold, and we were super grateful when our driver turned out to be the only one who’d brought hot water bottles. The stars were incredible.

Day three started off with a visit to some very dangerous hot springs very early in the morning. Watching the ground bubble beneath you is disconcerting anywhere, but the Bolivian attitude to health and safety appears to stop short at telling people ‘just be careful not to fall in’. We left the girls in the car to observe the geography from afar.

We were so glad to arrive at some slightly less dangerous hot springs where we could bathe – such a nice feeling. We watched flamingos feeding while the girls played mermaids with their new friends, before driving back to the airport via a bizarrely good pizza restaurant.

How would I describe the Salar? Otherworldly, and I suspect as near to a trip into space as Paul and I will ever get. No wonder they train astronauts there. Should you go? Undoubtably, but take your thermals. And a plastic dinosaur or two.

Bolivia I: Land of ups and downs, but mostly ups

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Travelling to Bolivia felt like a bit of a gamble. The country is far further off the beaten path than neighbouring Peru, and there have been plenty of warnings about terrifying buses and the mean streets of La Paz to dissuade us from the decision

However, for a family reeling from the Brexit result (Daisy’s comment, when we explained the vote to her was ‘is it like the Dark Ages now’), it proved a soothing place to lick our wounds and deal with the depleted pound. So come now, come to La Paz – just make sure you bring some oxygen and a sense of humour.

Bolivia started really well. We hopped back on the Peru Hop bus (cunningly renamed Bolivia Hop for the trip), and crossed a border complete with sheep on our way to Copacabana on the other side of the lake. As veterans at border crossings, I’d say that was the simplest yet – unlike the crossing back, but more on that later. On the bus we met another travelling family – Baby Ivy reminded us so much of Daisy and Clover (who were also travelling babies), and the girls loved playing with her.

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Copacabana is backpacker central. Its main function is to serve as a jumping-off point for Bolivian islands on Lake Titicaca. The most famous are Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna, apparently the birthplace of the Incans. Couldn’t miss that, so we took a tiny ferry over to the larger of the two, followed by an exceptionally steep climb up to the village.

Isla del Sol is like picture perfect Greece from 50 years ago. No cars (no roads) and plenty of donkeys and glorious sea views. The accommodation, though, is basic to say the least, and we made the poor girls hike for hours before lunch (tip: the Bolivians like to tell you what you would like to hear, which might explain why they all enthusiastically agreed there would be a restaurant around the next corner). It’s also distinctly chilly at night, so take warm clothes. Fortunately Clover takes her position as my hot water bottle very seriously when I share a bed with her – though she does insist on sleeping like a starfish.

Following our stint in Lake Titicaca we crossed the lake (on the Bolivia Hop bus) to the rest of Bolivia. That is, the bus crossed the lake on a rather rickety raft. Yes, that’s right. Bus/Lake/raft…with all our belongings on it! And we crossed the lake on a tiny tiny boat, concentrating very hard on the Milky Way in an attempt to stave off our fear. The stars were, it has to be said, amazing – the less said about the actual crossing the better.

La Paz, at 10pm, is a slightly terrifying city to approach. You approach it through El Alto – which is the second city that is tacked on to the Bolivian business capital. El Alto has an even worse reputation than La Paz itself, and at 10pm it looks like the scene from an apocalyptic movie. No-one on the street except dogs and a couple of sinister hooded figures, and hardly a light in the unfinished buildings. It’s times like that that you begin to question your travelling decisions.

It doesn’t improve when the bus – which has our Air BnB address, drops us off at the entrance to a rather unpromising shopping centre. Shutters down. World of Warcraft type stores in the basement. And Bernardo, our landlord, waiting courteously in the cold for his slightly late guests.

It got better from there. Turns out that the top of a dodgy-looking apartment block is definitely the place to be. A three-bedroom penthouse (with baths! Heaven!) gives us the most perfect views over the city imaginable, and the girls settled in fast.

Air BnB has made the hugest difference to the trip. Living in an apartment is just so much better than huddling in a hotel room. I did quite a lot of work in La Paz, as it turns out, and while I did it the girls had room to spread out. We cooked dinner for new friends (OK only pasta and sauce, but it was nice to hang out) and there was much lego, drawing and playing of games, and a little homeschooling too.

We also, as it turned out, had a few other little visitors. We’ve managed to avoid nits up til now, but somehow they found us in Bolivia. Delousing in La Paz will definitely be the name of any travel book I ever write – it sums up the glamour of travelling with children.

So, what did we actually do in La Paz? Decompressed a little, went to some lovely restaurants (do try Chez Moustache for great French food, though oddly staff who can’t speak French, and therefore can’t read their own menu). Went on the Teleferico – which takes you high, high above the city in near silence. I want one in London, as it would be such a lovely way to commute. We went to the children’s museum – which was less a museum and more the best playgroup you’ve ever been to – clay, bubbles, art and space exhibitions made of cardboard.

What didn’t we do? The Witches Market (seen enough witchy markets everywhere else, and once you’ve seen one llama foetus you’ve seen em all) and er, central La Paz. I think our tolerance for sights decreases as we travel, and we were only really prepared to put ourselves out for the two big trips we’d come to Bolivia for. Of which more in a moment. But La Paz is lovely – breathtaking in more than one way – but definitely worth a look in.