Steak, wine, and waterfalls: Salta to Iguazu

Salta, a colonial city in Argentina’s northwest, was home for the next few days. San Pedro had been a tiring experience, with a noisy dorm, and excursions starting hours before dawn and going on into the night. Trying to keep some control over our budget, empanadas had been our primary source of (delicious) food. In Salta we crashed,  lazed, indulged in the biggest, most delicious steak of our lives in a buzzing neighbourhood restaurant, enjoyed cheap good wine and freshly cooked meals in the hostel kitchen and leafy patio garden, and plotted our logistics for the upcoming Brazilian leg of our trip which coincided with the high season over Easter. We failed to see or do a single touristy thing in the city, beyond the steak, but soaked up the bustling evening atmosphere when half the city seemed to be enjoying their daily promenade on our walks to and from the supermarket.

Suitably rejuvenated after a few days, it was time to move on. Another night bus awaited us, this time for a 16 hour journey to Posadas, which we boarded in the early afternoon. We settled in to our seats at the front of the top deck, and watched the suburbs give way to lush tropical farms and countryside. In the glow of the late evening sun parrots flashed green and red in front of us. As night fell, dinner was served, with cold meats, cheeses, and bread making a change from the Peruvian chicken and rice bus staple. But then….we were served a second course! It might even have been chicken and rice. Then we were offered some wine. As if on a night-time safari we sipped our Argentinian white, and watched as nightjars rose up from the road in front of us, a snake slithered across our path, and a furry bottom disappeared into the undergrowth. Once in Posadas the next morning we switched onto another bus for a further 5 hours to Iguazu. We were pretty tired on arrival in the heat and humidity at our Iguazu hostel, but went for a wander to the tri-border viewpoint over the Iguazu river, looking across to Brazil and Paraguay.

The next morning we were up early, to be at the Iguazu park entrance when it opened at 8am. It was a beautiful day, and in the cool and quiet of the morning we virtually had the lower circuit of walkways among tropical trees to ourselves. Argentina (9)

We saw toucans and vultures, rainbows, got our first soaking from the spray of the falls, and had a late breakfast picnic of bread, honey and kiwi fruit sitting here:

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Then to the upper circuit, taking in more waterfall rainbows, before joining the throngs that had caught us up for the train to the Devil’s throat walkway.

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Another picnic pit-stop for lunch, and then we headed out along the 1km trail over the river, spying turtles and catfish, and the rising plume of spray from the falls at the end. Standing above the immense cauldron of water falling beneath you was spectacular, and we got soaked to the skin time and again.

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The next day we made a day trip to the Brazilian side, this time under a cooler, moodier, cloudy sky. We looked back at where we’d been the previous day, and got up close to the Devil’s throat falls from beneath them this time, with another drenching. We spotted flocks of swifts swirling in the rain and spray, before flying straight through the walls of water to their nests behind them. Then it was back to the hostel, to get ready to head to Brazil, for real this time, the next day. Argentina (22)Argentina (26)Argentina (27)

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San Pedro de Atacama to Salta

Despite being in the middle of the driest region on earth, we set off to explore some lakes before bidding San Pedro de Atacama farewell and heading onwards to Argentina. First, we explored the salt lakes that are vital habitat for flamingos. The lake was slowly evaporating, leaving behind encrusted salt, in the midst of a vast salt plain. Chile (69)

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Then it was onwards to the Altiplanic lakes at 4500m, vivid blue water reflecting the fiercely clear sky, ringed with tough green grass and small herds of vicunas.

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The next day we packed up and set our sights on Argentina, boarding a bus to take us up and out of the desert, over the Andes, and down the other side to Salta, a colonial city in the northwest of the country. We drove up high enough to pop our bags of crisps, past volcanic peaks, including one marking the border with Bolivia, a tantalising glimpse of a destination for next time. We passed lakes ringed with bright white salt, strange rock forms emerging from the desert, spotted vicunas, and somewhere up in the mountains we crossed the border into Argentina.

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Then the descent, by which time we were on the verge of dozing off, but our eyes pinged open when we realised we were in the middle of a brilliant white salt plain stretching into the distance.

Chile (93)Sometime later we entered a dense bank of cloud, and then started making our way down a series of hairpins. As we emerged from beneath the cloud giant cactuses dotted the canyon-like hillside, which gave way to a valley of pink, red, and purple striped hillsides. We had entered the UNESCO World Heritage valley of Quebrada de Humahuaca. As night fell rain started pouring, a welcome relief from the dryness of the desert. We drove onwards for a couple more hours, this time through urban and agricultural lowlands, streetlights and car lights illuminating the raindrops on the windows, and making the earlier succession of natural wonders seem impossible.

Sometimes, rainforest creatures come to you…

My first night of a 4 month field season, I settled down to sleep listening to the buzzes and squawks of the jungle night, mosquito net carefully tucked in all around my mattress. After a while, in the pitch dark, I felt the net trembling, as an animal climbed down the cord that held it up. Then it climbed down the net itself, and then – I’m not sure if it was the first night or later on once this had become routine – it ran across my toes. Welcome to the rainforest, where the creatures come to you.

A few minutes later I heard it knock over all the things I’d unpacked onto my shelves in an attempt to settle in to my new home. It turned out to be an opossum, a large mousey marsupial, which was encouraged on its nightly forays by a long-term resident at the field station who lived in the room next to mine, who left apple cores out for it to find.

Earlier in the evening I’d discovered a very effective (for someone who isn’t good with spiders) energy saving device above the lightswitch. spider lightswitch

It was a good introduction, as various animals were frequently found in the station buildings, from the boa that settled in a couple of metres beyond my desk in the library, to the (absolutely massive) tarantula that appeared in my bedroom (some may wonder why an arachnophobe would live in the jungle), the frogs and geckos that patrolled the bedroom walls, the curly centipedes that would drop from the palm thatched dorm roof, the cockroaches that could be found snacking on soap in the middle of the night, and once a tiny black scoprion in the middle of my bedroom floor.

I became quite attached to one particular creature that I shared a cabin with for a while, although the first time I saw it – a black frog appearing in the toilet bowl when I flushed it – it made me jump. He would appear as the flush was pressed, swim hard against the current to avoid being swept away, and disappear again under the rim afterwards. It took me ages to figure out he wasn’t living just out of sight in the bowl, but up in the cistern. What the toilet offered over the forest I don’t know, but he was always there, swimming away. Until one day I was devastated to see him swim not quite hard enough, and disappear down the pipe. I was happy to see him again a few days later, or if not the same frog, another who shared its taste in cisterns.

My field assistant once encountered a jaguar a few metres away when he made a night-time trip from the dorm building to the bathroom cabin, at CICRA’s satellite station CM1. The two buildings are separated by a short stretch of grass. As he was about to return to the dorm, he spotted huge eye-shine in the beam of his headtorch, and could even make out the markings on the jaguar’s face. The eyes moved down to the ground, and back up again, as if sizing up prey. The following morning dawned grey and rainy, meaning no mist-netting could be done, and I wondered why he was up and wide awake so early. He hadn’t been able to get back to sleep.

CM1 bathrooms are evidently treacherous places, as this photo from good friend and fellow CICRA resident,  Brian Phillips, shows. Might make you re-think how badly you need to go.

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High, dry, with our eyes on the sky in Chile

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, our next destination, was 1000 miles away. We set off from Cusco to Arequipa, once again on a night bus. We arrived at 6.30 am, and went from groggy and half asleep to jogging with rucksacks on front and back to catch our newly discovered next bus in the space of fifteen minutes. Safely ensconced on our way to Tacna in Peru’s far south, we once again gawked at incredible desert scenery – red sand stretching to the horizon, followed by mountains and canyons making it look like we were on the moon – while trying to ignore the Bollywood and tsunami disaster films that were being played at top volume throughout the six hour journey. Once in Tacna, roasting at midday, we found a shared taxi making trips across the border into Chile, going as far as Arica. This crossing, in view of the Pacific, in a baking hot desert under a high sun, felt very different from our humid, dusky, subtropical crossing into Peru a few weeks earlier.

Arica felt modern and almost European in contrast to the Peruvian cities of the past few weeks. As all buses to San Pedro were at night, and there was not much keeping us in town, we booked for our second night bus in a row… and then enjoyed a few hours simply walking and not sitting on a bus. And eating pizza, and ice cream. And being in the vicinity of a normal, flushing toilet.

Back on the road again, we contorted ourselves into small seats, and then shivered in the dark at 5 am at a check point that wanted to see all our bags. The sun came up over the Atacama, and we saw yet more desert. At last, with mountains on the horizon, and trucks kicking up a plume of dust as they drove ahead of us, we arrived in San Pedro, a tourist mecca in Chile’s north east. We found it very strange. A pleasant little place, in the middle of nowhere, whitewashed and mud brick buildings lining the small grid of streets, a pretty plaza and church. But inside these buildings were posh tourist restaurants and bars that would not look out of place in a big city. Chile (1)Chile (2)

We traipsed the streets, as the sun got hotter and we felt more and more in need of a good big sleep, finding even grotty hostels out of our budget. Eventually, swayed by a smattering of resident backpackers making the place look normal, we ended up in a small hostel, with a couple of dorms and rooms around a dusty courtyard. We soon discovered that everything in San Pedro was crazy expensive. But they did have the first good wine of the trip.

We had come here to explore the incredible landscapes in the region, from salt and flamingo filled lakes, and the highest geyser field in the world, to desert valleys, and volcanic peaks. We had also come to see the stars. Being the driest place on earth, the Atacama desert is the place with the clearest view of space it is possible to have.

We started with a trip to Death Valley, scrambling up to a viewpoint above one of the driest places in the whole Atacama. Then we visited the white landscape of the Valley of the Moon, where we climbed a huge dune in time to watch the setting sun turn the valley golden, and then distant peaks pink and purple, as a sliver of a new moon brightened in the darkening sky. Chile (9)Chile (12)Chile (25)Chile (33)Chile (30)

Back in our dorm, ahead of a 4 am start for the tour the next morning, we were dismayed to discover all the beds were now full. When the time came it was a relief to stagger out into the cool, fresh, quiet darkness to escape a deathbed gurgling snorer. We drove for two hours, first dazzled by the brilliance of the Milky Way, then fighting to stay awake, and arrived with just enough time to pounce on the buffet breakfast of cake and tea before quickly freezing in subzero temperatures. We were now at about 4000m, 2000m higher than San Pedro, and arriving this early, while it was still cold, was necessary in order to see the geysers in their full glory.

We were led around the bizarre valley floor, from fumarole to hot spring to geyser, watching water splutter and steam from the ground, as the rising sun illuminated the rising steam. It was so cold (we were wearing more or less all the clothes that we had brought on the trip) that the thought of undressing to get into a thermal pool was too much, and instead we watched a shallow river quietly steaming as flowed past us, and an enormous geyser burst into life. Chile (46)Chile (45)Chile (57)

As we drove back, we saw the scenery that we had missed in the dark, vivid green giving way to bare ground on its way up to volcanic peaks, blue pools ringed with green, vicunas dotting the landscape.

That night we headed out of San Pedro once more, this time to explore the sky. Away from the lights of the town we were met by a Canadian astronomer who proceeded to tell us about the stars, and our long history of noticing, studying and understanding them. We stood in a circle as he spoke, faces to the sky, seeing more stars and shooting stars than we had ever seen before. As he spoke, our guide used a laser pointer that would be illegal in many countries and that seemed to reach to the stars themselves to point out particular stars, constellations, and signs of the zodiac. He told us the difference between stars and planets, why stars twinkle and planets don’t, how Orion’s belt and sword together make an arrow that points north, that warm-coloured stars are cold, and cold-coloured stars are warm (I could barely see colour differences but most people could), that the patches of the Milky Way that looked like they could be clouds were in fact two galaxies that were orbiting ours (huh?), that a distant splodge was a galaxy whose light had started travelling towards us halfway back to the dinosaurs… there was a lot more, but it was too much to remember.

Then we were let loose on an array of huge telescopes, each pointing at something special. We saw Saturn, complete with rings, which was jaw-dropping, a star that looked like one but was actually two orbiting each other, the ‘jewel box’, a star cluster containing different coloured stars, a tarantula nebula, and many more. Then we retreated to the cosiest little building, with a large hole in the roof, where we drank delicious hot chocolate and the astronomer answered questions while I kept an eye on the Southern Cross through the skylight. There we learnt that a shooting star is no bigger than a grain of salt.

Spider monkey fieldwork at Tiputini, Yasuni, Ecuador

More monkeying in the jungle, this time a primatologist with nearly a decade of research experience at Tiputini Biodiversity Station who has been researching the ecology and behaviour of the largest monkey in the region, the spider monkey. You may get a strong urge to swat a mosquito from his face during the video (and you can read about visiting Tiputini, in the most biodiverse place on earth, here, here, here, and here…it is an amazing place, there was a lot to write about!).

The Making of Amazon Gold

An in-depth look at the gold mining in Madre de Dios, from fieldwork dramas to an award-winning new film. A super interesting read.

http://news.mongabay.com/2014/0219-watsa-amazon-gold.html

Surround Science

New film documents a shadow world: the illegal gold mines of the Peruvian Amazon.
When Sara duPont first visited the Peruvian Amazon rainforest in the summer of 1999, it was a different place than it is today. Oceans of green, tranquil forest, met the eye at every turn. At dawn, her brain struggled to comprehend the onslaught of morning calls and duets of the nearly 600 species of birds resounding under the canopy. 
Today, the director of the new award-winning film,  Amazon Gold , reports that “roads have been built and people have arrived. It has become a new wild west, a place without law. People driven by poverty and the desire for a better life have come, exploiting the sacred ground.”
Read more at  http://news.mongabay.com/2014/0219-watsa-amazon-gold.html#S3zkoaM4r7yb8Xlp.99

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The Road to Cocha Cashu

Cocha Cashu is one of the most renowned rainforest research stations in the world. It is in Manu National Park, Peru, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, where the Andes give way to the Amazon lowlands. A lot of hugely influential work has been carried out at Cocha Cashu, and it is on my wish list of destinations to visit. This lovely video by primatologist and conservationist Mark Bowler gives an insight into the journey into the jungle from the mountain city of Cusco. Getting to the rainforest can be half the fun, and if this doesn’t make you want to run away to the jungle then nothing will.