Penang National Park and Environmental Observances

On our last day on the island we took the bus to Penang National Park, about an hour ride from central Georgetown.  There were several possible hikes but the Canopy Walkway was under renovation so we settled on the hike to Monkey Beach. 

Here is a short video of our adventure.  Make sure to check out 1:25 for some angry monkeys.

Penang National Park
Jungle ground in Penang National Park
Penang National Park Jelly Fish
A giant jellyfish in Penang National Park

We spent over an hour walking the jungle path until we came to the beach.  We sipped coconuts and had the usual arguments with the monkeys.

Penang National Park - Monkey Beach
Monkey Beach

They never like me very much and it never fails that we end up screeching at each other.  There were a lot of the little buggers and they had big teeth so we let them win this time.  We didn’t eat enough breakfast for such a long hike and were super hungry by the end (having only eaten like twice before leaving).  So we got some roti (fried folded delicious bread) while waiting for the bus back.

Penang National Park
Penang National Park

We were upset with the amount of trash in Penang National Park and saw quite a few Malaysian hikers throw their empty bottles right onto the beach.  Several people on Monkey Beach were selling a variety of drinks, all in small plastic bottles but there were no trash bins and it was obviously too much work for people to just carry it out.  A group of 20-30 middle school students passed us, each with their own small plastic bottle of water.  We talked while hiking out about how they could clean up all the trash in a few days with just a few people.  Near the entrance we came upon five park employees sweeping leaves off the path.   Yes that’s right, FIVE PEOPLE.  SWEEPING. LEAVES. OFF. A. PATH. IN. THE. JUNGLE.  I was really frustrated by the whole system and I tried to calmly explain this to the Park Ranger at the front gate on our way out.

Me: “Why do so many people throw trash on the beach?”

His response, waving his hands as if it’s hopeless: “They are local people.”

Me: “Do you tell them not to do it?”

He smiled and said, “Have a nice day!”

Well, that was that.  Non-confrontational Malaysian culture for the win!  Reflecting upon it, I don’t blame the people anymore.  Yes, we all need to be more conscious of the products we buy and the waste we produce but I blame the governments for not educating their people better and most of all the companies that produce the bottles.  If I were Supreme Dictator of The World, the Coca-Cola company would no longer exist.

Want to read more about Penang? Check it out here!

Advertisements

El Salvador’s El Imposible: Snakes, rain, and lots of jungle.

The only way into El Salvador‘s Parque Nacional El Imposible on the south side is a up a rough cobblestone road that winds its way up 14km from the coastal highway into the mountains.  There are several buses per day that make the trip but unless you are right on time, you will probably have better luck just hitching a ride in the back of a pickup.  After waiting about an hour, we were picked up by a nice couple that was also staying at our hostel, so we got super lucky.  The views riding from the back of the truck were amazing with the green hills covered in thick jungle and the ocean far in the distance.  The first night we took it easy and planned to get up at dawn to do a 10km round-trip hike before the midday rains came in.

That night I had a fever and felt all lightheaded and in the morning I was still not feeling 100% but decided to hike anyhow.  However, upon arriving at the park and learning that we were required to hired a guide for $10 on top of our $6 each to enter, we got angry with the system and decided to just rest up instead.  While walking back to the hostel I got all lightheaded again and my fever chills came back.  “Good thing we aren’t hiking!”  I went back to bed planning to sleep all day and hopefully be ready to move on by the next day.

I woke to someone yelling “Buenas dias!”  It was the couple that gave us a ride and they wanted to know if we wanted to go hike with them and share a guide.  After sleeping for a few hours I was feeling much better, so we told them we would come along.  They filled our water bottles with “agua de coco” from freshly cracked coconuts  and pretty soon we were back in the park and ready to hike!  The guide was there and turned out to be as pointless as we thought, as the trail was easy to follow.  By this time the sky was the normal hazy mess it is almost every day recently.  Ahh, the rainy season!

Nearing the midpoint of our hike to the top of Cerro León, we heard a yell in front of us and saw a three-foot-long brown snake slither off into the brush.  The guide said that the coffee-colored snakes are very dangerous.   A little farther ahead we heard another yell as the same guy almost stepped on a tiny stripped snake.  The guide said that this little guy was even more deadly.  Carrie and I were in our Chacos so we were pretty scared of stepping on one at this point!

At the top we were in the clouds so there wasn’t a view.  We had a few snacks then just as we were starting down the sky opened up and rain fell so hard that we were soaked in under a minute.  The trail turned to muddle puddles and waterfalls were forming everywhere.  We had to almost run down because there was a river that we needed to cross and the guide was worried about it swelling too much before we got there.  Thankfully we were able to cross but the water did go up to my knees.  The rain never really gave us a break and once finally back at the starting point we weren’t sure if we had a good time or not.  However, it was a crazy adventure and we both had goofy smiles on our faces for some reason.

Check back later for the story of the jungle rash some plant gave me!

The Three-Day Bus Marathon

After spending a couple days in Trinidad, we decided that the whole jungle adventure sounded a lot better than it actually turned out to be.  After spending over a week to get away from it all, we found ourselves again at the bus station looking for the fastest way back to civilization.  We wanted to get straight back to La Paz from where it’s a quick jump back to Perú and new and exciting things.  This turned out to be harder than expected.  There are three roads in and out of Trinidad.  One heads north to the Brazilian border, a journey of unknown hours that drops you off in the middle of the jungle.  The second is the road to La Paz.  This road is about a two days’ journey and at the time of our inquiries was passable only by 4×4 since it is destroyed every rainy season.  The third highway is the main way in, but involves backtracking all the way to Santa Cruz, an overnight trip, and then taking another overnighter to La Paz from there.  After some research, the 3rd option, though boring and backtracking, turned out to be the shorter, cheaper, and easier adventure.  So we decided to come back later that night and try to pick up a cheap ticket for the next day.

We had noticed the hundreds of motorcycles in the center of Trinidad, blocking up the main square, and sure enough when we got to the bus station the news was bad.  “No hay bus a Santa Cruz.” “Mañana?” we asked.  “No sé.” The Bolivians were again taking up their favorite hobby which is protesting things by blocking the main roads with rocks and angry mobs.  We had encountered these protests before while en route from Coroico to La Paz.  Our van left us off at the edge of the blockage and we had to walk 4km through lines of boulders placed every block or so.  The protesters were angry about that cost of minivan rides or something, but we were super annoyed because we had never had to walk that far with all of our stuff before.  On the La Paz side of the blockade, the police were showing up armed with huge bottles of pepper spray and the protestors were starting to get loud.  We jumped into the first taxi we found and were happy to be out of that mess.

So, after a night of not knowing how long we would have to endure Trinidad, we walked back to the bus station and were happy to hear that we would be able to take a bus to Santa Cruz (50 Bs each) that night.  So we stashed our big backs and took the cameras, journals, and books to the park where we sat all day waiting for our night bus.  These days sitting around are sometimes nice times to catch up on writing, but after a few hours we are usually pretty bored.  Usually we end up getting ice cream, and sometimes a beer helps to pass the time.  Our bus left at 7pm so we arrived at the terminal the usual 30 minutes before, and the bus left the usual one hour late.  We were tired and the seats reclined, so as soon as we were on the smooth road, we feel right asleep.

At 5:30am we woke in Santa Cruz, feeling some deja vu.  The Santa Cruz bus terminal is the hub that we have spent the most time in this entire trip and we hate it.  But they do sell good cheesy bread which made a nice breakfast.  We were able to get right on a bus to Cochabamba (50 Bs each) after waiting less than an hour and fell right back to sleep.  When I woke we were still in the jungle, but the mountains were visible on the horizon which brought some hope that we might actually make it.  But this bus was super-slow!  We had hoped to make it to La Paz in a perfect 24 hours after leaving Trini, but found ourselves only in Cochabamba at the 24 hour mark.  The thought occurred that we could get a hostel and sleep for a night, but then we found a cheap ticket for a 10pm to La Paz (35 Bs each) putting us in the capital bright and early.  So we bought it and wandered across the street from the terminal to indulge in some of the best street food we have found in South America.  Good, cheap food always helps to cheer us up.

We woke at dawn with the lights of La Paz shinning below us. It was COLD, 0 degrees C read the sign, 5:30 am.  By now we were pretty much braindead as we sat in the terminal, feet going numb.  Eventually we decided that the best and cheapest route was to take the 8:30am bus to Copacabana (25 Bs each), which we did, where we ate a quick lunch then bought a ticket all the way to Arequipa (100 Bs each) on a bus that changed in Puno.  The ticket vendor proclaimed that it was eight hours to Arequipa putting us at our final destination at 9pm.  We had the fastest border crossing ever and but due to slow going and some more protests on the road, we didn’t find ourselves in Puno (where we had to change buses) until 4:30pm.  Getting into the second biggest city in Perú (Arequipa) at midnight didn’t sound like the best of plans, so we decided to end the marathon, switch our onward ticket, sleep in a bed, then continue at 8am.

So finally, the next day, we completed our trek to Arequipa at around 3pm.  That puts the total at 58 hours riding on a bus or waiting in bus terminals (after subtracting time spent in Puno).  This was the biggest bus marathon we have had or (hopefully) will ever have this entire trip.  Was it worth it?  Yes, because we are back in Perú which seems like a first world country after so long in Bolivia.  Yes, we enjoyed the fact that Bolivia is so underdeveloped, but after the extreme conditions of our time in the jungle, it was starting to get to us.  After such a crazy bus marathon, a few days rest in a beautiful and modern city were exactly what we needed.

Boat Hitchhiking to Trinidad, Bolivia – Part 4

After finally getting off La Pinta and setting foot back on dry land, we found ourselves in basically the middle of nowhere.  We were happy that River boat hitchhiking in Bolivia was done.  It was a tiny port with a few rundown boats parked and a few thatch shacks at the end of a dirt road.  Truly the back of beyond, like someplace out of Heart of Darkness or “Apocalypse Now”.  We knew it might be a long wait for a ride into Trinidad, so we sat down at a cafe and ordered “almuerzos”–hot noodle soup followed by a plate of rice, spaghetti, potatoes, and beef.  The heat was oppressive and we were pouring sweat even sitting in the shade.  Thankfully, while we were eating, a dusty, falling-apart taxi pulled up chock full of supplies.  While the driver unloaded his deliveries, we finished our lunch and afterwards waited a few minutes for more people to fill the car.  With four locals in the backseat, the driver, and Zach and I sharing the front passenger seat, we bounced off along the bumpy track towards Trinidad.  The short trip included a river crossing on a very rickety wooden ferry, and passed through several more tiny port villages.

Ferrying our dumpy taxi across a small river.

Finally we reached Trinidad, a small city which is capital of Bolivia’s jungly Beni province.  Trinidad is known for it’s many motorcycles; everyone seems to have one and there are hardly any cars.  The motorcycles zip around the streets like mad, ignoring traffic laws and narrowly missing accidents at every turn.  It’s a miracle we didn’t get run over!  Tourists can also rent motorcycles.  If that’s your idea of fun, go for it.  To me it sounds like inevitable road rash, if not worse.

Motorcycle madness!

Finding an acceptable hostel took awhile, but we eventually stumbled into Alojamiento Carmen, a decent place with fans and shared bathrooms, the highlight being the cable TV with a plethora of English channels.  They had the Latin American versions of TLC, WB, and FOX, so we spent a lot of time in the room watching random things like “No Reservations” (love Anthony Bourdain), “Ace of Cakes”, “Friends”, “Two and a Half Men”, “Grey’s Anatomy” (My guilty pleasure…but what is GOING ON there? I’ve missed so much!), and the worst one ever, “Man vs. Food.” Normally I get so disgusted watching Adam stuff his face and get fatter every episode, but try watching it in Bolivia and just see how horribly HUNGRY and JEALOUS you get!

Okay, that was a major TV tangent.  But really, it ended up being good that we had so many channels because there’s not much else to do in Trinidad!  The city is so hot and humid that you start sweating after walking only one block.  There are also a lot of mosquitoes out at night.  Suffice it to say, after only a few hours of wandering the streets, we were bored.

That night we had a bit of an existential crisis.  We had planned to stay for a couple nights in Trinidad, find another boat, and continue down the Rio Mamoré to Guayaramerin, on the Brazilian border.  There were two major reasons we had decided to do this: 1. Getting off the Gringo Trail and 2. It’s cheap!  What we finally admitted to ourselves this night in Trini was that despite our best-laid plans, we were bored.  We had been a bit bored, in fact, ever since realizing how behind on our budget we were, and cutting back on all activities and extras to try to make up for it.  What ensued was a long discussion about our priorities and how to make this the best possible experience.  We came to two conclusions: 1. We don’t want to go into debt on this trip.  (Debt-free is the way to be!)  2. If we’re not having fun then we need to change something.  Therefore, a hard decision was made.  We conceded to the possibility of returning home earlier (in June rather than July).  Nothing is official (we still don’t have a return ticket), but doing this would definitely ease the financial strain and allow us to enjoy the time we have left a lot more.  We’d rather say we had an AMAZING TIME for 7 months than that we toughed it out on very little money for 8 months.  (Although, of course, if anyone wants to send us some $$, we won’t say no, lol.)  So in the interest of making it back to the states faster and ditching the heat, mosquitoes, and boat boredom, we changed our plan (again) and decided that Brazil can wait for another trip.  “Let’s get out of this sweaty town, back to the mountains and Perú!” we said.  Arequipa, Perú, was the next place we were really excited for, and we desperately needed some excitement.  If only we knew how impossible it would be get back on the grid…

Please read the beginning of our River boat Hitchhiking in the Bolivian Amazon Aventura!

PART 3

Boat Hitchhiking Into The Bolivian Amazon: Part Two

Waiting for Bolivian Boat Hitchhiking

If there’s one thing Bolivia is determined to teach me, it’s patience.  This is not my strongest quality, so learning it takes a lot.  And believe me, we dealt with a lot of waiting in Puerto Villarroel for Bolivian boat hitchhiking into the Amazon.  We knew our perfect scenario, finding a boat ride to Trinidad the same day we arrived, was unlikely.  But the only way to get down the river was to start looking for a boat.  We first tried the dockside restaurant with a “Tourist Information” sign on it, but the lady inside looked shocked to see a tourist and of course knew nothing about boats.  So we stashed our packs under the stilted building and I went walking along the river.

Next someone directed me to the naval office, where the military officers at least tried to help this crazy dreadlocked hippy bum from a country Bolivia doesn’t get along with too well.  They found a boat captain who was leaving in the afternoon, a glimmer of hope!  But all the captain said was “I don’t have much space.”  When I asked him the price he ignored me and told me to go look at the boat, before walking away.  Since his boat was 1km away, we didn’t know the price, and it didn’t sound promising, we didn’t walk to look at the boat and never saw the captain again.  So more sitting around, more asking random passersby.  Most people want to help but just don’t know anything, so they direct you to one person who directs you to another person, and it all just turns into a wild goose chase.

Then finally — success?  An old man led me on a more profitable goose chase to a man driving by in a truck whose boat was also, supposedly leaving in the afternoon.  We settled on a price, agreed to wait for him where we were, shook hands and everything.  Shazam!  “After lunch,” was the time frame he’d given me.  So I sat with the stuff while Zach took off to buy groceries and water for the trip.  And then we sat.  And sat and sat.  1pm, 2pm, 3pm.  I was desperately craving a shower and a nap but still holding out hope that he guy would show up.  “Doesn’t he want our money?” we asked.  Apparently not.  Around 4pm, after watching the one way-too-crowded boat mentioned earlier leave, we gave up for the day and moved into the only hostel in town, hoping for better luck mañana.

The next day we woke at 7am, not wanting to miss any boat departures.  Silly U.S.-bred timeliness!  Rather quickly we were informed that nothing was leaving that day but one boat was leaving the next morning.  Some guy called the captain over to talk to us, but he wanted 200 Bolivianos ($29) each and for us to bring our own food.  The only other tidbit of info the Lonely Planet had given us on this trip was that it was supposed to cost 100 Bolivianos including food.  So ARGH!  We said no, maybe this Bolivian boat hitchhiking thing wasn’t going to work out.  We were hoping to SAVE money on this trip, not break even.  But as soon as we arrived back in our room, we both had realized that this was probably the best offer we were going to get to get out of this stinkin’ town.  It would cost more to get anywhere new by bus.  So we did an about face and accepted the offer.  “Woohoo, we hopefully have a boat ride tomorrow!” we cheered.  Now how to kill a day in the sleepy, nothing town of PV:  sit and watch The Sopranos all day because you sweat if you move and there are way too many mosquitoes outside.

Day Three.  “Please, let us leave today!”  We got up early again and waited where we were supposed to wait.  Again, it proved completely unnecessary.  The captain had said he’d come get us around 9am, but who knew what that meant.  Our hope started waning when at noon we were still sitting there, watching a monsoon downpour, with no departure imminent.  We thought we might have to stay another night and leave by bus in the morning, accepting defeat.  Then finally, finally, somebody random appeared and led us through the rain to the boat.  It seemed it was going to leave that day, hooray!  So we loaded our stuff, bought more food, and settled in to wait longer to see if the boat would actually leave… Who thought up this Bolivian boat hitchhiking idea anyhow?

PART 1

PART 3

Boat Hitchhiking Into The Bolivian Amazon: Part One

Recently we found ourselves in a kind of a rut.  Travel had started to drain on us and the whole “check out a new place every couple days” thing was just not as exciting s it had been.  We were weighing a lot of different options for the next section of our trip, and we decided that what we really needed was to get further out there, away from the rest of the tourist crowds.  In our guidebook there was mention of boat hitchhiking into the Bolivian Amazon .  It told us what towns had ports but besides that, there was very little information.  After searching the Internet and exhausting other guidebooks, we concluded that these river systems were, in fact “out there”, beyond the realms of modern society.  So we set aside three weeks of our lives to go see what kinds of trouble we could get ourselves into.

The adventure started in Santa Cruz.  From there we needed to go to a small port village called Puerto Villarroel, where, theoretically, we could ride up the Rio Ichilo to the city of Trinidad.  Trinidad is a decent-sized city and easily reachable by bus, but we wanted to ride the river the whole way.  After asking every bus agency in the Santa Cruz bus terminal, we learned that the way to Puerto Villarroel was something like this: Take a bus going to Cochabamba, get off at Villa Tunari, and from there catch a smaller bus to Puerto.  Sounded easy enough.  The problem was that we had slept in and missed the morning buses to Cochabamba and the next ones were night buses leaving between 5 and 9pm.  Six hours to Villa Tunari put us there at 11pm if we took the 5pm bus, and then two hours to Puerto put as at a 1am arrival time.  Or the 9pm bus supposedly put us at Puerto Villarroel at 5am (dawn).  We thought about the other option of just spending another night in Santa Cruz, but we were ready to get this thing started.  So we decided to start the adventure of right and risk getting to Villa Tunari at 3am, hoping they actually had a terminal or at least a safe spot to sit out of the rain if there weren’t night buses to Puerto (we assumed that there were not).

Our bus ended up leaving close to 10pm (one hour late) which we would have normally been mad about but this time it was a lucky break.  I tried to stay awake to make sure we got off at the right place, but somehow I must have dozed off because we woke to the other passengers kicking our seats and yelling that this was our stop.  (Lesson from the Samaipata mess: tell as many people as possible where you need to get off and they will help you!)  So we got out in the dark and rain in Villa Tunari, no bus terminal or further transportation in sight.  The bus driver said that we could catch a ride “here or there”, whatever that meant.  Luckily there was a nice awning to shield the rain and we sat down on our backpacks to survey the situation.  A friendly truck driver confirmed our suspicions that Villa Tunari was completely the wrong place and that we should have gotten off an hour early in Ivirgarzama, where the main highway intersets the road to Puerto Villarroel.  “Good information we got as usual” we said as we checked the time: 2:30am.  What is with always being early lately?????

The plan was to wait until sunrise, not draw attention to ourselves lest any creepers be about, and then it would be easy to catch a ride, since it was the main road between Bolivia’s two biggest cities.  “I think the reason people give us such bad information,” said Carrie, “is because no one travels, especially to these places, and no one wants to tell us that they don’t know how to get somewhere.  I wish they would just say ‘I don’t know!’”  Eventually Carrie was able to take a nap on her pack, in true bum style, and I paced and paced feeling a mixture of fatigue, boredom, hunger, and stress.  At first light I asked a taxi-looking van which way he was going and after some debate the driver agreed to take us to Ivirgazama for 40 Bolivianos, which was a great price but we were still mad at having to pay extra money because we listened to bad advice.  The driver was friendly and I think happy for the extra money, though he couldn’t have made much profit because it was a long drive.  “I’m a mechanic, not a taxi,” he said, laughing.

After an hour or so we were left off on the road to Puerto where there was a nice indigenous woman selling chicken, rice, and soup (breakfast?) for a cheap price.  With full stomachs we felt ready to push onward and asked people how we could go about doing so.  We were again given bad advice, twice, before finding ourselves walking 1km to the town plaza where there were supposedly rides to the end of the road.  By this point we were starting to get strange glances at our white skin and large backpacks so with smiles on our faces we looked at each other, simultaneously realized that we had finally made it “off the grid.”  We walked and asked more people and finally found a spot with shared taxis that traversed the final 25km to the end of the road.  We jumped in one for 5 Bolivianos each.  We passed thatch-roofed huts and fields of coca riding on a perfect new road in a car that somehow had the steering wheel and pedals switched from the right side to the left, but the gauges remained on the right.  We soon came to a small village were left off where the road dead-ended into the Rio Ichilo.  It was before 9am and we couldn’t have been more excited to get to the slow, sticky, and lazy village of Puerto Villarroel.  Why were we here again?

Part 2

Santa Cruz: More Brazilian than Bolivian

We arrived in Santa Cruz before we expected to, so going into the city we had no idea what to expect.  At 5am in the bus station we looked up a cheap hostel in the guidebook and then a map to see how far away it was.  It was a little over 2km to central Santa Cruz, a walk we were getting used to after swearing off taxis to save money.

The first thing we noticed was the heat and humidity-very tropical-feeling.  Sweat poured off our bodies but we made the walk fine with help from the extra near-sea-level oxygen.  After checking in and leaving our bags, we went exploring.  There were very few backpackers compared to what we had gotten used to in the rest of Bolivia.  This was a nice change since sometimes the places that have to deal with less gringos treat the ones they do meet a little bit better.  We found a lady selling soft-serve ice cream, the best soft-serve we have had in South America.  At first it was super hard to even understand what people were saying because of their super-strange accents.  So many words that were supposed to end in ‘s’ somehow had the ‘s’ omitted.  But, as in every new place, we got the hang of it eventually and their speech started to make some sense.

For being the largest city in Bolivia, Santa Cruz had the feel of a sleepy jungle town.  Everyone moved at a slowish pace that was refreshing after places like La Paz where there is so much pushing and shoving.  All the buildings were also only a few stories high with only a couple of skyrise apartments breaking the overall flatness of the city.  We kept on the lookout for sloths in the trees, as supposedly there are a few left in the city despite the relocation of most.  Our last day we spent hanging out in the central plaza, Plaza 24 de Septiembre, watching old men play chess and shoeshiners on their knees polishing already-shiny shoes.  About once per hour there would be a blast of rain that would last just long enough to clear the park and then the sun would quickly return, sometimes bringing perfect rainbows.

Santa Cruz is definitely different than other Bolivian cities and we can see why it is said to be “more Brazilian than Bolivian”.  More tropical, less hurried, and in general easy to get around in, we were glad to have raveled the extra distance to check out Bolivia’s most-populated city.