Travelblog SA#39: Mendoza & Iguazú – Argentina & Brazil

26th January – 1st February 2019

Before I speak of my time in Mendoza I would like to mention the journey there as the road which crosses into Argentina from Santiago is not one to be forgotten and certainly one to be passed in the daytime. I usually take long distances at night when I can to save time and money but this was an occasion I went for the more scenic option.

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It climbs up into the Andes, through an incredible landscape of barren valleys and ice-capped mountains. The road is truly a marvel and I have uploaded some videos from it which can be viewed here.

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I stayed at Hostel Estacion during my time at Mendoza. It was a homey place and the staff were helpful. It also, most blessedly, had a pool to swimming pool which gave periods of relief during the sweltering days where the temperature fluctuated between 32 to 38 Celsius. I spent much of my afternoons and evenings in Mendoza drinking Malbec (their signature wine) and chilling out in the garden between taking occasional dips in the pool.

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There was hardly ever a cloud in the sky. Mendoza receives very little rainfall. It was originally a dessert until a series of irrigation channels were created to channel water from the nearby mountains. Constant sunshine, warm temperatures, lack of clouds, and the introduction of flowing water created the ideal conditions for the production of grapes, and many of Argentina’s population are of Italian descent. Thus, it became one of the biggest vineyards in the world.

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Mendoza is a sleepy town, particularly during the afternoons when all the shops close and everyone retreats into their houses for siestas. I wandered around during a Sunday and found that the busiest places were the church – where mass was being held – and San Martin Park, where people had come to lounge upon the grass, ride their bicycles, and there was even a rowing club practising in the lake.

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A visit to Mendoza is simply not complete without going on a tour to see some of the vineyards though, which is what I did on my final day.

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I originally had a romantic notion in my head that I would this independently – as it is very possible to hire a bicycle, buy a map, and tour vineyards off your own steam – but the reality was that it was just so unbearably hot I questioned how much I would enjoy it. The hostel I was staying at recommended a reasonably-priced tour on an air-conditioned bus and perhaps, being eight months into my trip now, I was beginning to feel a little lazy. I didn’t regret my choice, as I had a wonderful afternoon. We were taken to three vineyards, in all, and each gave us a little tour of their grounds where they explained some of the wine-making processes until we got to the best part, the tasting.

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We were also taken to an olive oil factory, where I ended up buying some things from their range of dried vegetables and pastes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t buy any wine – as much as I would have liked to – because the following morning I was flying to Iguazú.

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I didn’t arrive in time to see the falls the first day so instead, I went to Güira Oga, an animal refuge. It runs on similar principles as AmaZOOnico in Ecuador – which I went to several months ago – treading a healthy balance between being a zoo and rehabilitation centre. Entry fees go towards the care and rehabilitation of animals and the guests are only exposed to the animals which have no chance of being released (or are being kept as mating pairs to help repopulate numbers in the wild) during their tours. I saw lots of birds and also some mammals, including monkeys, wildcats, deer and otters.

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They had recently released a pair of howler monkeys who have since had a baby and still linger around the grounds while they are being weaned off the dependency of humans to provide them food. I saw them and have a video of it here.

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I went straight to the falls first thing the next morning.

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That day, I went to view them from the Argentinean side. There was almost a full day’s worth of walkways one could view the cascades from. The first, ‘Paseo Inferior’, is along the bottom.

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The second trail, ‘Paseo Superior’, goes along the top.

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And there was also a third trail where you can walk along a series of boardwalks further up the bank to reach Garganta del Diablo, where another section of the falls plunges into the river. I have videos here.

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I also have a collection of other videos from the Argentinean side, which can be viewed by clicking here.

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There was also another trail to Arrechea Falls. They were not as spectacular but it was a pleasant walk through the jungle and the pool at the bottom was suitable for swimming which was a refreshing relief considering the sweltering heat.

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Being back in tropical regions – after months spent of Patagonia and the Andes – brought me back to the first few months of my travels which were spent in Ecuador and Peru. It wasn’t just the heat and flora that made me reminisce. It was also all the animals saw in the Iguazú National Park that day and the visit I’d made the previous afternoon to the rescue centre. They renewed within my mind similar issues which these wild places visited by humans face. There are problems at Iguazú with the coatis and some of the monkeys too. They were perhaps originally encouraged by visitors feeding them, thinking it was cute, but now the animals have come to associate humans with food and are a nuisance. This is bad for them because many have probably forgotten how to obtain all their food from the wild now. One of them stole my lunch and for a few moments, we were caught in a wrestle before it tore away half of my bread roll.

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I caught a bus over the border the following day to see the falls from the Brazilian side.

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It wasn’t quite as jaw-dropping as the Argentinean side, but still – the bar being as high as it is for this incredible place – it was well worth the trip.

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The highlight of it was probably the boardwalk at the bottom of Garganta del Diablo, which I had seen the top of the previous day in Argentina.

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More videos of this side of the falls can be viewed here. I also caught some of them in slow motion too.

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There is another wildlife centre by the Brazilian side of the falls called Parque Das Aves. It has a bit more a zoo feel than Güira Oga but does have a great collection of birds and they are involved in some conservation projects.

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My last day in Iguazú, there wasn’t much left to do so I went for a walk around the town, soaked up the atmosphere, and also went to the Tres Fronteras Mirador. A place where you can stand where the Iguazú and Paraná rivers meet and look upon both Brazil (to the right) and Panama (to the left).

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For more photos and videos from Mendoza or Iguazú click on the hyperlinks.

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Travelblog SA#15: Amazon Rainforest – Peru

6th-10th September 2018

 

Day 1

Leaving early, myself and a group of girls I was sharing this Amazon experience with left Iquitos for the jungle.

It took the entire morning to get there. First, we had to be driven to Nauta – a small port town on the bank of the Marañón river – where Vily, who would be our guide for the next five days, showed us around the market while he purchased some last-needed supplies. And then we boarded a boat.

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It wasn’t long into the journey that I began to see herons, cormorants, and other kinds of birds. When we reached the channel where the Marañón, Amazon and Ucayali rivers met, schools of dolphins appeared. Most of them were the grey kind – which are plentiful throughout the Amazon – but we also saw some of the rarer pinks ones too. I caught a video of one of the grey ones breaking the surface of the water in front of the boat.

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Arriving at the lodge, we were given a lunch of fried catfish and shown to the rooms which would be our homes during our stay. Jungle Wolf Lodge is located within a privately-owned reserve of primary rainforest. I took some time to wander around the grounds whilst waiting for the afternoon activities to begin and spotted lots of tropical birds. I also saw stirring in the branches of one of the trees which I suspected to be a monkey but it was too high up for me to see.

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We were taken on our first boat safari, where we spotted three kinds of kingfisher, a yellow-headed vulture, buzzards, blue macaws, and other birds.

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We also encountered a sloth and our first species of monkey; a group of pygmy marmosets which were busily drinking sap from a tree.

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Day 2

I had been coughing and sneezing the previous day and didn’t think much of it at first but overnight it escalated and by the morning I had accepted I had a cold. I didn’t have a temperature though so it was more annoying than debilitating. I slept quite well throughout the night, as the air seemed a little cooler here in the forest than in Iquitos with its concrete buildings.

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Just after breakfast, I spotted a group of squirrel monkeys in the canopy near the lodge and ran to alert the girls. I caught some videos, including this one. Later on, Vily along with Norbi (who was our secondary guide and boat-driver) took us for a hike in the jungle and showed us lots of interesting things. A tree whose sap can be used to treat stomach complaints. Another whose sap can be used to form a cast to set broken bones. We were shown an Acai tree, whose berries have become fashionable among health gurus in the west but here they use the roots to prevent malaria and the sprouting leaves at the top are an ingredient used in salads. Termite nests, which can be broken open and smeared across your body to ward away mosquitoes (the termites can’t bite you and they eat so many leaves they have a woody aroma).

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Vily also spotted a green-backed trogon, some big spiders, a frog, and the infamous bullet ant, whose sting is the most painful in the world. We also came across the nest and a ‘highway’ for a huge community of leaf-cutter ants, whom Vily explained do not actually eat the leaves but use them to help encourage mushrooms to grow (which they eat).

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In the afternoon we were taken on another boat safari but this time down the other side of the river, where we saw woolly monkeys, a monk saki (which are exclusive to this area and north-western Brazil), and a green iguana resting on the branch of a tree. We also saw a Chestnut-eared aracari.

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And then, just before sunset, we moored up on a beach by a small lake, where we swam, took mudbaths, and saw more dolphins.

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That night, we were taken into the jungle again to see nocturnal life and found lots of spiders, scorpions and tarantulas.

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I walked on ahead for a while at one point and saw a small mammal scurrying across the ground. At the time I believed it to be a rat, but when the others caught up and I told Vily about it he said it was more likely a possum.

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The highlight of the night for me was a huge toad we saw towards the end.

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I didn’t sleep well that night. My cold was getting worse. I had a temperature and I didn’t get much sleep.

 

Day 3

In the morning I was still feeling unwell but I was determined to power on through and experience all I could during my limited time here. I took a paracetamol and got onto the boat. That day we were going fishing, and our main objective was to catch a piranha. We weren’t very lucky in that regard but we did come back to the lodge that afternoon with several catfish which we gutted ourselves and ate for lunch. We didn’t see much in the way of new wildlife, but there was a large group of macaws in the trees above us and it was interesting to see them interact with each other. On our way back, Vily spotted a tiger heron on the bank (video here).

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After lunch, we packed our things and got onto the boat. We were camping in the jungle that night.

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The boat took us down a river we had not explored yet. One which doesn’t have an official name on the maps but runs all the way to Brazil. On the journey, I fleetingly saw a small monkey – the size of a tamarind, but a different colour – leap between the trees, which was likely a coppery titi. An hour later, Vily chose the place we would stay for the night and we began to set up shelters using a series of tarps and sticks we gathered from the forest floor as frames.

Vily and Norbi took us on an evening safari further up the river to try to spot caiman but we were unlucky and only saw a group of electric eels jumping the water. The ride was pleasant though and it was interesting to float through the Amazon at night. There was a storm going on in the distance which occasionally lit up the sky.

When we returned to camp, we lit a fire and were just discussing what to have for dinner that night, when we were suddenly hit by a series of gales followed by heavy rain.

It seemed the storm had caught up with us.

Our shelters had no walls, just a roof and groundsheet, so the winds blew everything around. Myself, Vily, and Norbi ran around the camp, taking down the mosquito nets and storing all the blankets, food and bags in places safe from the rain. As I was adjusting one of the ropes, a gust knocked a dead branch from the tree above me, missing my head by inches and breaking the frame of our main shelter. We made a quick fix to ensure our possessions were safe from getting too wet and then huddled together in the second shelter while we waited for the rain to end.

Eventually, the thunder stopped and the rain weakened to just a light downpour. Vily and Norbi began to rebuild the shelter in a place with better wind cover and further from the possibility of falling branches. Mosquitos, less shy now the winds had gone, came out in swarms. I covered myself from head to toe – and the few parts of me which weren’t covered, I kept spraying with repellent – but it seemed that nothing could completely stop them. They bit my fingers, my face, and even my legs and knees through my trousers.

By the time Vily and Norby managed to get the shelter ready again, I scrambled under the mosquito net but some of the mosquitoes followed me inside so I caught them all in my hands and crushed them.

Just as I was drifting to sleep, I heard a voice outside. It was Vily, saying that he and Norbi had managed to get a fire going again and were making food. I thanked them but declined. It was late, and I finally had a haven safe from the mosquitoes. It would take much more than a fried egg to give up my sanctuary.

 

Day 4

I slept surprisingly well and it seemed my cold had lifted. I was the first up and I went for a little walk around the forest and then sat by the river to watch birds. I saw a yellow-headed caracara.

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Once we packed up camp, we went fishing again and this time were luckier. One of the girls finally caught a piranha.

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We then returned to the lodge, where we showered and had a lunch of rice, vegetables and the fish we caught. We went for a trip to San Pedro village in the afternoon, which was a little bit touristy, but not untastefully so. It had a pond full of Victoria amazonica lilies, the biggest in the world.

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There was also a place where, for a small fee, you could pet a sloth but it wasn’t a form of tourism I wanted to encourage so I politely declined. When I first saw the sloth, I asked how it had come to live with them and they claimed it was an orphan they found and rescued, but that story didn’t quite add up considering that (I found out later) they had a total of four of the creatures. I also happen to know (from my time volunteering at Merazonia) that sloths are one of the easier species to rehabilitate and adapt very quickly once set free. They belong in the wild, and I was pretty sure the only reason the family was keeping them was to make money from tourists (many of whom are naïve and experience warm, fuzzy feelings when they get the chance to pet fluffy creatures, but don’t properly consider their wellbeing).

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I enjoyed wandering around the village and soaking up the atmosphere as adults sat on their porches listening to music and kids played football on the street. One of the houses had a display of some rather interesting ayahuasca-inspired art too.

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Day 5

The final morning we were taken out on the boat one last time and for a short walk. Our guide happened to know where a pair of night monkeys were nesting so he took us to see them.

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Their tree nest was also home to a pair of bats (which the monkeys do not mind sharing with because they eat bugs, including mosquitoes). Night monkeys are nocturnal and always live in pairs.  During the day at least one of them is always keeping watch for intruders and predators, but we were lucky and got to see both of them. I have a video which you can see here.

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At the end of the tour, we were taken to see the ‘Avatar Tree’ (which is actually a group of parasitic figus trees strangling other trees). Apart from being stung by a wasp and seeing a woodpecker, the rest of my last day in the Amazon was uneventful.

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Overall I had a great time with Jungle Wolf Expeditions. I got to see lots of wildlife, the food was great, the lodge was a comfortable base to explore the jungle and, most of all, Vily and Norbi were very dedicated guides who have a genuine passion for nature. I highly recommend them.

 

For more photos and videos, click here.

Travelblog SA#7: Volunteering at Merazonia – Ecuador

28th June – 6th August 2018

Merazonia is a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation centre nestled where the Andes meets the Amazon in Ecuador, and it has been operating for almost a decade. I had the privilege of staying there as a volunteer for a little over five weeks – which is actually not that long in the scheme of things as the minimum stay they ask for is two weeks but almost everyone who comes falls in love with the place and many end up staying for months, even years.

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On my first day, I was introduced to everyone, given a tour, and designated a bed in their dormitory. They told me I could spend the afternoon in leisure, having only just arrived, but I was feeling motivated so offered to help them with enrichment activities. A few minutes later, I found myself traipsing through the jungle, towards a release site they were building, and I helped them construct feeders there. Most of Merazonia’s enclosures are just a short walk away from the main headquarters but this was a new one, purposefully built a little further away to help encourage a successful release for primates.

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I also met Whistler that night, who would end up being one of my favourites of all the creatures there. Merazonia is primarily a rehabilitation centre and, unlike some places which make such claims, they have a strict policy of minimum human contact for most of their animals because taming them can affect their chances of survival when set free. Their highest priority, however, is wellbeing, and in some cases, where release is not possible, they give them the best life they can.

Whistler is one of those creatures for whom release is not possible. He is a kinkajou; a nocturnal, tree-dwelling mammal that some people mistakenly believe can they can tame and keep as novel pets but end up having a nasty surprise later along the line when the animals reach maturity because detained kinkajous become aggressive out of infancy. Merazonia have been handed many such kinkajous in the past, and most have been successfully released back into the wild, but Whistler, however, is somewhat an oddity. He remains human-orientated, and they suspect he may have brain damage. He also has physical health problems, and one of the daily duties of Merazonia’s volunteers is to visit him at night and give him a spoonful of jam laced with medicine which helps keep him alive. As soon as you enter his cage, he leaps upon you, wraps his tail around your neck, nestles into your arms, and will simply not let you go until he has had a few minutes of attention. They call him Whistler because he once had his nose scratched off by another kinkajou and he makes a strange sound when he breathes. Everyone adores him.

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Of course, not all of the work at Merazonia is glamorous. Most of the time you are cleaning cages and it is not something I would recommend to someone with a strong adversity for monkey guano. You have to be quiet while performing these chores and avoid all unnecessary interaction with the animals because it is bad for them to get too used to humans.

That said, volunteering at Merazonia is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done and I learned a lot about wildlife while there. One of my favourite days was when I helped extend the artificial branch system they have for Houdini and Margarita – a pair of macaws who cannot fly and thus roam around Merazonia by climbing along a series of beams – and watching them use it for the first time, knowing that I helped make a pair of creatures worlds’ a little bigger.

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During my stay, a lot of attention was focussed upon their group of woolly monkeys. Each one had been brought to the centre individually over the years, and most often they were young, malnourished and traumatised, having just witnessed their mother being hunted for bushmeat and sold as pets to people who didn’t have a clue how to care for them. Each one has had to be nurtured back to health, raised, and introduced to the rest of the group once old enough. It has taken Merazonia years but they finally have a strong enough group to consider preparing for release and I admire the work of its staff and long-term volunteers who have such patience and dedicated their lives to such a cause. I will not be there for the actual release but feel honoured to have been part of the build-up and I hope it goes well.

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Merazona also has a group of capuchins which, like the woolly monkeys, need to be fed and have their enclosures cleaned twice a day. They are a little more difficult to manage than woollies because they are highly intelligent and have a complex social structure but, despite how troublesome they can be, they are often amusing to watch and they do put a smile on your face. They have taken in some howler monkeys over the years too, but not so many because unfortunately, not many howlers sold as pets survive long enough to make it to a refuge as they are very specialised feeders and many die of malnutrition. Chiliana is one who was lucky enough to be saved in time, and she has to be taken out into the jungle every day to forage for very particular leaves, learn to climb, and build up her muscles.

There are lots of macaws and other birds, some tamarins, a sloth called Stevie (who is shortly due for release), a puma and, last but not least, Tom the turkey (who has technically been released and is self-sufficient, but spends many of his days roaming around the grounds causing mischief).

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Another highlight of my time there was being given the privilege of becoming a ‘Baby Woolly Daddy’ and helping to look after two of Merazonia’s newest members, Fonzi and Chachi, who were adorable and hard to say goodbye to.

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Just a little note, so that future volunteers don’t get the wrong idea: Merazonia only lets a limited number of its volunteers handle baby monkeys as, even though it is a necessity for them to have the care and attention their original parents from the wild can no longer give, it is not good for them to be handled by too many people. When Fonzi and Chachi are old enough they will start the rehabilitation process and will likely be the first members of a new group of woollies Merazonia will prepare for release. Who knows? Maybe I will visit Merazonia again in a few years and one of them will be the new alpha male. It would be nice to see them again, but by then the policy of minimum human contact will be in place and I will not be allowed to acknowledge them in the same manner. They will also have become wilder. I will certainly be following Merazonia closely online to hear about their progress.

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I have uploaded a few more videos, highlighting some of my favourite moments in Merazonia. You can find them by clicking on the following links:

Visiting the nearby waterfall (I didn’t jump into it myself as I am way too scared of heights!), the woolly monkeys, Chilliana playing in the trees, Fonzi and Chachi montage, and releasing a sloth.

 

For more photos and videos from Merazonia, click here.

If you are interested in volunteering at Merazonia (or even just helping them out in some other way, such as adopting one of their animals) here is their website. This video on Youtube is also a good introduction to what they are about.