Monthly Archives: June 2006

A Great Establishment

May 25, 2006
Day 239
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 6

Picture of cattle.

The Frenchman paddling.

For a change of pace, we started our third day of canoing at sunrise. A few hours later, we pulled up to a small settlement on the Brazilian side. The owner and only resident told us that we'd see an estancia on the Brazilian side in around six hours. We made that our goal for the day.

Today was the hottest, sunniest day on the river yet. All remnants of the storm that hit the area a few days ago were gone. It was a long day of canoing where we saw not one other boat and only an occasional macaw flew overhead.

Finally, late in the afternoon, we spotted a small pig farm in Bolivia, followed immediately by the estancia we were expecting in Brazil. The estancia looked nicer so we stayed there.

It was a good decision. Not only could we stay there for the night, but we could even use their guest rooms for free. The rooms were nicer than most hotel rooms I've stayed at recently with comfortable beds, running water, flushing toilets, and even electricity at night. My only complaint was that the mosquitoes were horrendous, but as soon as it got dark, a guy walked around the whole place with a fumigator!

Coconut trees were everywhere with far more ripe coconuts than the fifteen cattle farmers who lived there could possibly eat, so we cut a few down and had coconut juice with our dinner. Afterwards, Ambrosia, the man who originally showed us around the place, and Marcus, the farm's boss, stopped by and invited us to eat their dinner as well! We sat around a large dinner table and ate with the cowboy employees with grins from ear to ear and stomachs overflowing. I couldn't believe the hospitality we were receiving. Then again, we were probably only the second, third, and forth foreigners to visit this place after a Spanish kayaker who stopped by a few weeks ago.

While we were eating dinner, it occurred to all three of us that we should stay here another day. We could probably make it to Versalles in three long days, and with six days until the party, we figured that we'd be doing the place a disservice if we didn't relax, eat coconuts, and enjoy the gaucho lifestyle for another day.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Animals Galore

May 24, 2006
Day 238
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 5

Picture of Frenchman.

The Frenchman paddling.

The next town on our map of the river was Santa Cruz, on the Brazilian side. It looked like it would take all day to get there, so we left as soon as there was enough daylight to see the river. About three hours later, we came to a little settlement on the Bolivian side. We stopped to get information and were invited up to sample their lunch. The main course was a turtle cooked right in the shell. I put all environmental concerns aside and gave it a try. The meat was tough and bland. It was apparent that the people living there would never starve: They also had a large fish on a line for their next meal and could easily hunt or fish for anything else they needed. They are going to Versalles, so I guess we'll see them at the party.

The rest of the day was categorized by world-class wildlife. We saw giant toucans, macaws, parrots, capybaras, caymans, pink dolphins, and stingrays. Exotic animals were popping out of all corners all afternoon.

Once again, navigation was difficult as we were plagued by more large islands and oxbows. Getting good info has been problematic as well. The best directions people are willing to give us are "Always stay right," "Always stay left," or "Always follow the current downstream." Locals' guesses of paddle times were way off was well. The actual time it took us to get to every destination has been double that of what we have been told so far. Leaving so early is starting to look like a really good idea now.

The jungle was still thick on both sides, so we stopped at the next town we came to, after eleven hours of paddling. This name was Fiscal, and once again, it was on the Brazilian side. This town was a big bigger with maybe 100 people. We set up camp and got more info about what to expect tomorrow from a school teacher. Nobody there spoke Spanish, but Portuguese is still somewhat understandable if you understand Spanish and it is spoken slowly. Everyone was really nice again, but we'll have to get an early start tomorrow so we didn't have time to hang out much.

The photo album for this entry is here.

A Leaky Beginning

May 23, 2006
Day 237
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 4

Picture of us.

We are about to start our journey.

The canoe was moved to the town's jetty for us early this morning. We paid for it, loaded up all our supplies, and took off. Remanso was a nice town for us to visit. By the time we left, everyone knew the crazy gringos who were going to canoe for a week to get to the party. I imagine we'll be seeing a lot of the townsfolk in Versalles.

Almost as soon as we left, the boat started leaking pretty severely. We stopped at Cafetal, the tiny town just down the river from Remanso, to try to get it taken care of. A few guys sitting near the jetty laughed at us and told us that they'd help. One guy pulled out a mallet and what appeared to be a handful of horsehair and started pounding it into a crack. At first, it looked like he was making it worse, but eventually, the leak slowed to a manageable rate. We'll just have to bail every hour or so I guess. I hope the canoe doesn't sink because we'll be totally screwed if it does. Assuming we can swim through the strong current of the piranha-infested waters to the shore, we'll still have to deal with tigers, tarantulas, anacondas, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, inch-long poisonous ants, and who knows what else.

We saw almost no people the entire day. Somehow, we figured the river would be fairly populated like the Rio Paraguay was, but that wasn't the case. We also thought we'd find beaches for camping, but the river was high, so there was nothing but thick jungle on both sides.

Navigation was also more difficult than expected. Everyone we asked said that getting down the river was straightforward, but that couldn't have been further from the truth. At least once per hour, we approached an island or an oxbow. We had to make a decision of which way to go using only a map of the entire country that didn't show the river in any discernible detail. I think we wasted a few hours by making bad decisions, but there wasn't any way to avoid them. In the end, we'll get to Versalles eventually as long as we keep moving downstream.

About an hour before dark we got lucky. On the Brazilian side of the Itenez, we spotted Lana Jeiras. It appeared to be just a few houses, but we figured we should make sure it was OK with someone if we camped there first. We were greeted by Claudio, a friendly man who spoke good Spanish. Not only was it OK for us to camp there, but Gabriel was able to sleep on the floor in a guest house for free because he didn't have a tent.

While we were cooking dinner, Claudio came out and gave us some catfish to throw on the fire. We had a delicious feast. Later, we had a coffee and a chat with Claudio. The hospitality he gave us was a great introduction on my first night in Brazil. Hopefully, that will continue down the river because most of the towns are on the Brazilian side.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Preparing Our Canoe Trip

May 22, 2006
Day 236
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 3

Picture of sunset.

Remanso at sunset.

We started putting the word out on the street that we wanted to buy a canoe as soon as we got here, and people started delivering today. We looked at a couple this morning that were nice, but far too small for three people plus all of our gear. At least they were dugouts, canoes carved from a single tree trunk. The next canoe was made from several planks of wood. It looked like it would hold more weight, but it was designed to hold an engine, so paddling would be very difficult. Finding a severed cayman tail in the back was an added bonus, but we still decided to pass. Other people kept suggesting that we buy an aluminum boat or take the free boat instead. They simply couldn't understand why we'd want to paddle down the river in a wooden canoe when easier options were available.

Late in the afternoon, we were talking about buying two canoes for the three of us. It wouldn't be the ideal situation, but at least it would be possible. Suddenly, an old man approached us and said that he had a big canoe for sale. In fact, he claimed it would comfortably hold 600 KG, over twice the weight we had calculated for us and all of our gear. As soon as we saw it, we knew it was the canoe for us. It would easily hold all our stuff and give us enough space for a comfortable journey. I got in and started thrashing around. It was nearly impossible to tip, and no water leaked in. After a bit of bargaining, it was ours for $100. With any luck, we'll be able to sell it at the party and lose little or no money on it. Even if we can't sell it, losing $33 on a two-week adventure won't disappoint me too much.

After we had our boat squared away, it was time to stock up. We bought enough food for a week, some rope, and some emergency supplies. We also got three nice paddles from various people around town. We'll leave first thing in the morning.

Of Biblical Proportions

May 21, 2006
Day 235
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 2

A torrential downpour struck Remanso last night. It didn't let up in the day much, either. We had no choice but to put our plans on hold. Supposedly this is the dry season and it's not normal to have any rain this time of year, so maybe conditions will get better tomorrow. I don't think paddling a canoe for a week will be much fun if they don't.

Stuck In The Mud

May 20, 2006
Day 234
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 1

Picture of bus.

Our stuck bus.

The road we were on was inaccessible due to rain for nine months out of the year. In fact, when we rode the same bus last week, it was the first time all year the driver was able to complete the route. Because of issues with reaching certain points, we found ourselves in the unique situation of being on a bus and not knowing where it was going, even after asking several other passengers. We were hoping to go to Piso Firme in hopes of seeing the northern part of the park, but we found out from the driver himself that we could only go as far as Remanso. Our decision had been made for us.

On the way to Remanso, we crossed some really rough terrain. On more than one occasion, I though the bus might tip over because the road was so unsteady. We nearly got stuck several times.

Then it finally happened. Our bus lost momentum crossing a long path of mud and eventually stopped. The rear differential was lodged firmly into the ground. Everyone got out and started pushing, but to no avail. Our driver and a few others started digging at the mud around the tires and bringing in small rocks for traction, but the bus still wouldn't budge. After about an hour, a farmer who lives up the road came by with his truck to try to pull us out, but the truck was way too light.

It looked like we might be stuck all day. Several people began digging deeper holes around the tires and chopping down trees to put underneath. Every half hour the bus was started, but wouldn't move an inch. We were stuck for about five hours when a large dump truck carrying a pile of rocks showed up. It pulled our bus out of its predicament with ease. All of that digging and pushing was done for nothing. At least we were finally on our way once again.

We thought the bus was going to Remanso, but it stopped just shy in a village downstream called Cafetal. We loaded up five people and our gear into a small dugout canoe with a tiny motor and powered our way to Remanso. It's another small native village, but with 500 inhabitants, it has a few luxuries Florida didn't: general stores, diesel-generated electricity, and ice cold beer.

The three of us began exploring our options for where to go next, and it didn't look like we'd get to the northern end of the park because it was too expensive. I think Craig and I got lucky getting to Florida so cheaply as well: Everyone we met paid $100-$200 to get there, and our bus was only $6.

We started asking villagers about going downstream on the Itenez, which is the border between Bolivia and Brazil. They all mentioned a party that will be happening in Versalles on June 1. Supposedly, everything there except alcohol is free! Gabriel, Craig, and I all figured we had to get there, so it appears that the three of us will travel together for awhile longer. Versalles is about 250 K's from Remanso, and we were told that we would paddle about 8-10 KPH, so we could probably get there in 3-4 days. However, maybe it will take longer, so it will be nice to have a few buffer days just in case.

We were also told that there is a large boat that goes up and down the river once per month, and that it's free, too! It seemed too good to be true, but everyone insists that it's free, even for foreigners, because it's a joint project by the governments of Bolivia and Brazil to increase commerce on the river.

We could just wait for the free boat to pass Remanso and ride it to Versalles, but that would be boring. Instead, our goal is to buy a canoe from Remanso and paddle it down the Itenez to Versalles for the party. From there, we'll either sell the canoe or take it with us on the free boat down to Guayamarin, where the adventure will end about two weeks from now.

The photo album for this entry are here and here.

Lucky Ride Out

May 19, 2006
Day 233
NKM Adventure Day 10

Picture of butterflies.

Butterflies swarm Gabriel's backpack.

We had a few options for leaving Florida today. We were going to go with our fanged friend on his motorcycle to the intersection, but Craig, Gabriel, and I all wanted to go, and with a round trip of three hours per person, it would be a long day. Later in the morning, we heard about a few people who were going to be leaving in a 4X4 truck, and suddenly all of us, including Rose and Tiere were up for leaving. The truck went south to San Ignacio, so Craig, Maxim, and I all got dropped off at the intersection, hoping to catch a ride to the north.

We all sat around the intersection, the same place where we had camped a week ago, and waited for any vehicle to show up. We passed the time by writing in our journals and watching thousands of butterflies, and Gabriel discovered a large rock nearby with a great view of the surrounding jungle. The meseta was also barely visible in the distance.

Three hours went by, but still no vehicles passed us. You know you're in a remote area when you are on the only road for 100 miles and you can write a sentence like that last one. We were getting hungry, so we decided to build a fire and cook some pasta for lunch. No sooner than the pasta had been put into the pot of boiling water, we heard a vehicle coming toward us! It was, in fact, the same bus we rode up in a week ago. We stalled the bus driver for as long as possible while the pasta finished cooking. Finally we grabbed the pot off the fire and jumped aboard. Twenty minutes later the pasta had steamed enough for us to eat it.

The rest of the day was long and boring. The bus slowly made its way north over the bumpy dirt road through the jungle. At one point, we stopped and the driver got out, walked into a house, and fell asleep for two hours. He had been driving the bus for nearly two days straight, so I guess he deserved a break. While we were waiting, we saw a single man on a bicycle ride past us. That was the strangest thing I had seen all day. The light from his bicycle was probably the only one within fifty miles of that point.

We also stopped from about 2:00 AM till dawn so the driver could sleep more. This time, he stayed on the bus. He snored so loud, he was probably the only one asleep on the whole bus.

Nothing Left In Me

May 18, 2006
Day 232
NKM Adventure Day 9

This was our earliest start yet. With 40 K's to walk back to Florida on already-fatigued legs, we wanted as much time in the cool moonlight as possible, so we started walking at 3:00. When it started to get light three hours later, we ate our breakfast and Craig took off on his bike with all our gear. Candido was lucky: he got to sleep in till 5:00.

This was probably the toughest walk I have ever done. Even though I was carrying almost nothing, the last few days had taken their toll on me physically. I could feel my feet swelling up in the sweltering jungle heat, and my blisters were ripping off my ankles, leaving just raw bloodied skin below. My pace slowed and I had to take frequent breaks. Still, every time I stopped, I got swarmed with insects after about five minutes, so I had to continue again.

By noon, I had run out of water and was getting dehydrated. "Where is the river?" was about the only thought that could cross my mind. Finally, I saw a tent in the path. It was Craig's. He couldn't get across the river on his own because the ferry was on the other side. Our only chance was to go across on an aluminum boat, but it was filled with water. We baled and baled and dragged the boat out, but we weren't sure how fast it would sink into the piranha-infested waters. There didn't seem to be any major holes in it. We decided to give it a go. There were no paddles, so we had to pull ourselves across using the ferry's guide cable. The boat began to fill with water, but we made it before we sank.

I slurped down a grapefruit from the tree near the bank and Craig gave me the bike to ride the rest of the way back. I downed a few liters of water and collapsed on my bed. I had walked over 150 K's in six days and could take no more. There had to be a better way to get back to the intersection where the public bus would pass tomorrow.

A few other people were at our hotel and also looking to get out. Rose form England, Gabriel from France, and Tiere from La Reunion had all been in Florida and the national park for over a week and had been waiting for a car to leave town for the last several days with no luck. Rumors started flying that someone was going to San Ignacio and someone else may be going to Piso Firme, which is where we want to go, tomorrow. Nobody knows for sure, so we'll have to wait till tomorrow to get more info. If all works out well, we'll go to Piso Firme, explore the northern part of the park a bit, get a canoe, and paddle down the Itenez to Guayamarin, which should take 1-2 weeks.

Overall, Noel Kempff Mercado was a great experience. It seemed like every time we turned a corner, another unique animal was in our path. Craig was even luckier than I as he saw a tapir and an anaconda when we were separated. We couldn't have asked for a better guide, either. Candido didn't let politics get in the way of having a good time. He had a great eye for pointing out wildlife and caught enough fish for the three of us to eat four meals. Other than the problems we had with the bikes, the last few days have been an amazing adventure.

A Hot Savanna Walk

May 17, 2006
Day 231
NKM Adventure Day 8

As usual, we started our day before sunrise and began to walk back to Los Fierros. We would have liked to have started at around 3:00 AM so we could get through the savanna before the extreme heat set in. However, Candido strongly recommended against doing that because it would be too difficult for us to navigate our way through the thick jungle path in the darkness at the beginning of our walk.

When we got to the river, Candido went to town with his fishing once again and let us walk ahead of him. By the time he caught up, he had caught several large fish and couldn't have been happier. Later, he found a place where the river had dried up to a puddle which was teeming with stranded fish. He started pulling them out so quickly he didn't even remove them from the hook. They just flopped off onto the road. A grand feast would be in order for the night.

We got to the savanna in the middle of the day, just as the sun was beating down. Luckily, we each had several liters of water at our disposal. Vultures started circling, but we would have none of it. It was a tough few hours, but eventually we made it back into the jungle. An hour later, we were at Lost Fierros once again.

We weren't as lucky as last time at Los Fierros as the ranger came yesterday and turned off the gas and electricity so we had to light a fire to cook and use our flashlights to see. We still had clean running water, though. We combined our remaining rice with Candido's bounty of Fish and had a large dinner. I was too tired to do much else, though, so I basically just sat around and relaxed.

Incidentally, today was my birthday but I didn't even realize it until it was over. I hadn't been around a calendar for a long time and somehow I thought it was tomorrow.

To The Top Of The Jungle

May 16, 2006
Day 230
NKM Adventure Day 7

Picture of turtle.

A turtle that was wandering around the path.

With yesterday's bicycle debacle, we decided that we would have to revise today's goals. Craig and I decided that we would walk to the bottom of the meseta, set up camp, and attempt to walk to the top and back. There was a campsite a few hours away on top, but there would be no way we could walk there after walking 35 more K's. Candido would leave after us and catch up on his bike.

The first hour of our walk was easy, but then we entered the savanna. Without the protection of the jungle canopy, the weather instantly became brutal. It was a tough few hours, but eventually we made it back to the jungle.

Later, Candido caught up with us and we went fishing by the river. Craig liked to brag about his mad fishing skillz, but Candido probably caught five fish before Craig reeled in his first one. After thirty minutes, we had enough fish for lunch and dinner.

The rest of the path for the day was impassible on a bicycle, so we walked the rest of the way to the campsite. When we got there, we saw the same tour group that we had seen on the way into the park. They were on their way out, and seemed to be a bit jealous that we saw a puma. One of the advantages of walking versus driving, I guess. They packed up and headed back down, and we set up our camp in their place.

After a short rest, Craig and I walked to the top of the 600 meter meseta. The view at the top was great. I could see the jungle for what seemed like hundreds of kilometers. Going to the top really gave us a perspective of the remoteness of the location. Not one human settlement was visible from any direction.

Finally we walked back down to the campsite where we had boiled fish and pasta for dinner. The campsite was about 100 K's from where the bus dropped us off, but we were only halfway done. The next three days will be spent tracing our path back to that same spot.