Las Cuevas – A literal bird in the hand and shocking wasp-on-tarantula violence

Las Cuevas – A literal bird in the hand and shocking wasp-on-tarantula violence

I did my favorite hike in Samaipata with Matan Vax, my Israeli travel partner for three weeks in Bolivia.

Matan in the clouds

Matan in the clouds

To start out, Matan and I took a cab from Samaipata to a nearby village where the Dutch owner of Hostel Andorina, Andres, had recommended we try to find a guide named Benjamin (pronounced “Ben-ha-meen”).

We asked a few local villagers where we could find him and they pointed us in the direction of an old, dilapidated shack.  Outside the shack we found an old man steadfastly making some wooden furniture.

“Estamos buscando por Benjamin” we told him.  He responded by showing us a slight grin, prominently displaying his one and only one tooth, and said “Soy yo, soy Benjamin.”  We had found our guide.  We told him where we wanted to go and 3 minutes later he emerged from his home wearing a big pair of rubber boats and carrying a machete.

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Matan and I were both surprised at how old Benjamin was, still be guiding folks up in the mountains at the ripe age of 64.  But I guess in Bolivia, 64 may be young.  According to the Bolivian government, a Bolivian man named Carmelo Flores is now an astonishing 123 years old, which would make him the oldest person who ever lived.  Despite the problems with this claim outlined in the hyperlinked CNN article, Benjamin lives a similar lifestyle to the at-least 100+ year old Carmelo Flores.  Both live in the highlands of Bolivia, both walk a lot in those highlands, and both eat a very natural diet of Quinoa and local game.

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While walking every day in the mountains and eating healthy a natural diet does not guarantee a long life – as the article points out the main reason someone lives longer than others is not because of their lifestyle choices, but genetics – these choices certainly don’t hurt.  Benjamin guided us along up to and along a mountain ridge above his village.

As you can hear Matan comment in the video above, we were literally in the clouds along the mountain ridge, steep valleys falling away on either side, and a 360 degree view at almost every point on the trek.

Benjamin was interested in U.S. politics and in particular, Obama.  He asked me lots of questions during the first 45 minutes of the hike.  This is pretty common for wherever I have traveled in the world.  When people find out I am from the United States one of the most common questions is “what do you think about Obama?”

As I mentioned in one of my previous blog posts, relations between Bolivia and the U.S. are not the best.  Even if Evo Morales doesn’t like Obama, Benjamin seemed to like him.  This is also a common sentiment among people outside the U.S. – they like Obama,  and they don’t like former president George W. Bush.  These are all just generalizations though.

As Benjamin led us on the trek he seemed to be looking for something.

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To continue his “search”, as you can see in the video below, Benjamin would methodically swing his machete from side to side in the long grass.

Finally we realized what Benjamin had been looking for, when all of a sudden he reached down into the grass and let out a small shout.  What he drew out of the grass surprised both me and Matan.

With a big one-toothed grin, Benjamin proudly shows his catch, a small flightless bird

With a big one-toothed grin, Benjamin proudly shows his catch, a small flightless bird

At first, Matan and I were not sure why he had been looking for this bird, but when I snapped this picture and look back on it now, I can see the hungry look in Benjamin’s eye as he holds out the bird.

A hungry look in his eye

Whether he would eat the bird that night or coop it to fatten it up was unclear.

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Parque Amboro – Jurassic-era ferns and formic acid from fire ants in the Cloud Forest

Parque Amboro – Jurassic-era ferns and formic acid from fire ants in the Cloud Forest

My first hike in Samaipata was into Parque Amboro, aka the “Cloud Forest.”

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The forest is covered with a dense layer of clouds, which thankfully didn’t rain on us that day.

Before we had even entered the forest our guide pointed out perhaps the most interesting site of the hike, a huge anthill constructed by fire ants.

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Indigenous tribes still living in isolated parts of Bolivia use the formic acid from the fire ants to kill young children’s parasitic stomach infections, such as Giardia.

To isolate the formic acid without having to suffer several nasty bites the tribes poke a stick into the side of the fire ants’ nest, as the guide does in this video here.  In the video you can see the strength of the fire ants’ bite.  When the guide gets a couple on his hand he must delicately and painfully pull them out after they have chomped into him, and you can hear him yell in pain while he does.

In most situations, ramming a stick into a meter-high mound to enrage the thousands of fire ants inside is a bad idea.  But if you’ve got a stomach bug in the forest, it may be your best bet.  The fire ants madly attack the stick by biting it repeatedly, then spraying formic acid into the wound they believe they are creating in the stick.  This leaves the tip of the stick covered in the ants’ potent formic acid.  The acid gives off a very pungent aroma that resembles spearmint.

To ingest the formic acid the tribes would simply have their children suck on the end of the stick that was attacked.  Once ingested, the formic acid would eradicate the parasites in the stomach and usually within a day or two the child will be feeling better.

If I had known that at the time I was developing Giardia, I may have considered having a taste of the stick myself.  It goes without saying that killing a stomach bug with formic acid from a fire ant is a way better story than taking Tricomicin…

The fire ants weren’t the only venomous insect in Parque Amboro.  There were also lots of these beautifully dangerous caterpillars.

Look but don’t touch!

Look but don’t touch!

At one point our guide somehow ended up with one on his cap and inadvertently touched it while trying to brush it off.   Ouch!  The spines of the caterpillar are toxic but not lethally so.

Not all the insects in the forest were dangerous.  According to our guide this grub is considered a delightful snack by most indigenous tribes in Bolivia.

Thanks, I’ll pass….

Thanks, I’ll pass….

Parque Amboro is best known for its massive fern trees.

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The fern tree species that grow in Parque Amboro date back to the Jurassic Period.

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The tree ferns are big and tall, keeping the forest cool and shaded.

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A picture our guide took helps put the size of these big tree ferns in better perspective.

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The lichen growing in Parque Amboro on the trees are 50 shades of grey green.

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Trekking through the forest requires wet slides down some cold muddy slopes and treks up some equally slippery streams.

Matan carefully makes his way up the stream

Matan carefully makes his way up the stream

I fell down at least five times on this hike and by the end of the hike, my hands were thoroughly covered in mud.

Yoel assures me that we will be rocking out in no time

Yoel assures me that we will be rocking out in no time

To complicate the slippery hiking, you must resist your instinct to grab onto nearby trees for support.  The trees are covered with spiky thorns, a defensive evolutionary advantage that likely dates back to the Jurassic Period.

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I made the mistake of grabbing one of the trees for support on more than one occasion.

Samaipata – Simon the Spider Monkey and Israeli backpacking superiority in South America

Samaipata – Simon the Spider Monkey and Israeli backpacking superiority in South America

Samaipata is a Quechua word that means “The Height to Rest.”

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The small, slow-moving town meets this description perfectly.

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Samaipata is a great place to come and relax and do some hiking, whether you are coming from Sucre in the South, Santa Cruz in the East, or La Paz in the Northwest.

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The central plaza has a little platform where if you stand directly in the middle, you can talk and instantaneously hear your own echo. It is an interesting phenomenon that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.

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At the time I visited Samaipata there were lots of Israeli backpackers heading north into Samaipata after spending several months in Chile and Southern Argentina. Lots more were heading west in Bolivia after finishing weeks of partying in Rio, Brazil during Carnival.

Some of my Israeli traveling buddies enjoying some water pipe in Samaipata’s only bar

Some of my Israeli traveling buddies enjoying some water pipe in Samaipata’s only bar

Like Eyal, who had just finished his service in the military and who I had just spent time with in Parque Toro Toro, there are tons of other Israelis backpacking all over South America.  Just like Aussies tend to dominate backpacking in Europe and Southeast Asia, Israelis dominate backpacking in South America.  To illustrate this point, in a place called El Chalten, Argentina, at a certain time of the year are more Israeli backpackers in that part of southern Patagonia than Argentinian residents.

It was in Samaipata that I first witnessed Israelis’ backpacking prominence in South America. I stayed in a hostel dorm with two other Israeli guys and no exaggeration, the other 30 guests at the hostel were all Israeli.  One of the guys I stayed with, Matan Vax, ended up traveling with me in Bolivia for three weeks.

Matan pets Samaipata’s only dalmation

Matan pets Samaipata’s only dalmation

The high number of Israelis is no coincidence.  After each of them finish their compulsory military service (guys must serve three years, girls two) most of them grab a backpack and go see the world for 6-12 months. This is culturally similar to the Australian “Gap Year”, only difference being that for Israelis it occurs after military service (when 21-22 years old) instead of after the end of high school (when 18 years old), as it is in Australia.

So while the Israelis in South America (and the ones I met in Southeast Asia) were enjoying their backpacking “gap” after military service, they are generally older and more mature than the Australian Gap-Year backpackers you meet in Europe and Southeast Asia.

But both the Israeli and Australian Gap Years offer the same invaluable life lesson. Before the Israelis have even attended university, like the Aussies, they go out and broaden their horizons through world travel and learn more life lessons than a university could ever teach them.  As I mentioned in the hyperlinked blog post above, which I wrote a year ago, I think this has big-time value for a variety of reasons.

Matan and I throw a Frisbee in Samaipata’s futbol field

Matan and I throw a Frisbee in Samaipata’s futbol field

The most popular Israeli backpacking destinations are the cheapest ones. 1. South America, 2. Southeast Asia, and 3. India.  There is even a website for Israeli backpackers in South America, http://www.gringo.co.il/, where they can post advice about places to stay, recommendations for tour companies, and logistics of how to get from point A to point B.  Suffice it to say, Israelis got backpacking in South America figured out.  Most of them are traveling in the continent for at least 6-9 months and many more will continue on up into Central America.

There are are tons of things to do in and around Samaipata.  The hikes are so plentiful that the owner of Hostal Andoriña, a Dutchman named Andrés, has devoted an entire book to them.  I did four big hikes in Samaipata but those will be the subjects of my next blog posts.  In this post I just focus on what is going on in the small town of Samaipata.

Undoubtedly Samaipata’s greatest and simultaneously most underrated attraction is its Animal Refuge.

free monkeys for your well being

The entrance sign is actually being very literal.  When they say “free monkeys for your well being”, they mean it…

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Though it is never nice to play favorites my favorite monkey at the refuge was undoubtedly Simon (pronounced See-mone), a spider monkey the refuge was taking care of.

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The guide at the refuge showed us how keen Simon was to give you hugs, or just to use you as a tree.

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Simon is anything but shy.  In one of my favorite videos of my South American trip I wander over to Simon’s play area and when he take notices of me he, he moves right in for a quick climb and hug maneuver.

The other monkeys at the refuge have a bit more freedom than Simon, who is movably chained to a chain link wire.

It is always sad to see an animal chained or caged but Simon gets lots of attention and love throughout each day

It is always sad to see an animal chained or caged but Simon gets lots of attention and care each day

For instance, the refuge’s howler monkey wanders wherever he pleases.

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But mostly he just liked to take naps.  On my lap.

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There were several smaller chimps running willy-nilly around the compound – in this video they almost interrupted the howler monkey’s nap.

Only the most aggressive monkeys had to be in cages.

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The rest of the monkeys were free to do what they wanted, which included a variety of playful activities.