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Places to Visit in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

We have recently returned from a holiday travelling through Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina, two countries that we have long wanted to visit. We decided to take a fly-drive trip, flying in and then hiring a car so that we could have flexibility touring through these two beautiful countries.

Driving in Bosnia and Croatia

We flew into Dubrovnik in Croatia (as that worked best for our flights from the UK) and then hired a car at the airport. It’s always worth pre-booking the hire car. Driving in both countries is pretty easy – the roads are generally good (they are better in Croatia which has a more established tourism infrastructure) and, even better, usually free of traffic. Due to the mountainous nature of region dual carriageways were rare and the drives were leisurely but the scenery throughout each drive was spectacular. We kept to the speed limit – and be aware that there are speed cameras, particularly close to schools in towns – but were overtaken on quite a few occasions.

Border crossings were generally easy – we just needed to join the queue for cars and simply hand over our passports at the first check-in booth and then answer any questions as the next one, the customs booth. In Bosnia Herzegovina proof of Covid vaccination was needed (at the time of travelling). We had printed our Covid passes out so they were easily to hand but a mobile phone app would have been just as good. Our itinerary took us in and out of both countries. After an overnight stay in Mali Ston we headed into Bosnia Herzegovina.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s History

Bosnia Herzegovina has a long and complex history. Its location in the Balkans is often described as the crossroads between south and south-east Europe. Populated by south Slavic people it was annexed into the Ottoman Empire, who brought Islam to the area, in the middle of the 15th century. Hence the population comprises Serb (Orthodox Christians), Croat (Catholic) and Bosniak (Muslim) peoples. This is reflected in the multitude of churches and mosques that can be seen throughout the region.

Mostar is the main (in fact, the only) city in Herzegovina. (The northern region of the country is Bosnia, with Sarajevo as its capital, and Herzegovina is the south.) Mostar is located on the Neretva river, surely one of the world’s most beautiful rivers, with its crystal clear turquoise water. The city is most famous for the Stari Most bridge that crosses the river. It was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and completed somewhere between 1566 and 1567.

It was the widest constructed arch in the world at the time at 30 metres long and 4 metres wide. The drop to the water is around 20 metres depending on the river level. The Ottomans were clever in that this was the only bridge spanning the river for several centuries – the word Mostar derives from ‘mostari’ – bridge keepers – so that the authorities could impose tolls on the traders who needed to cross as they moved their goods through the region. The bridge is flanked by two impressive towers.

Place to visit Mostar

Following the decline of the Ottoman Empire and then the annexation of Bosnia Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1909, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was established in 1929 after World War 1. This became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, under the rule of Josip Broz Tito, following World War 2. The region remained stable until the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Following Slovenia and Croatia’s respective secessions from Yugoslavia, Bosnia Herzegovina held an independence referendum in February 1992. The outcome was in favour but, while most Bosnian Croats and Muslim Bosniaks had voted, the referendum had been boycotted most of the Bosnian Serbs, a significant proportion of the population. A series of events following this led to war breaking out between the different groups. It lasted until December 1995.

It is incredibly difficult to summarise – let alone truly understand – the complexities of the war but what is undeniable is how horrific it was. This was a war that happened during our lifetime – we remember from seeing news reports on the television at the time. We spoke to a number of local people – from all ethnicities – during our time in Bosnia Herzegovina and they told us about their experiences living through the war, notably the Siege of Sarajevo. Following the peace declaration, the government structure in Bosnia Herzegovina has become incredibly complex with representatives from each ethnic group holding positions of power. For example, the country has three presidents: a Bosniak, a Serb, and a Croat.

One of the consequences of the war for Mostar was the destruction of the Stari Most bridge in December 1993. It was not only considered to be a strategic bridge (the other bridges crossing the river in Mostar were also destroyed) but also a cultural icon. The bridge was rebuilt after the war using funding from a variety of sources and many different countries contributed to the fund. The aim was to reconstruct the bridge in identical style and using similar materials (some salvaged from the original bridge where possible). It was reopened in 2004.

Places to Visit in Mostar – A Walking Tour

When visiting a new city, particularly when we are touring and short on time, we enjoy taking a walking tour. There are usually lots of options available but we especially like the ‘free tours’ which are run by local guides (who will expect a tip at the end of the tour and absolutely deserve one) who can show you the main places to visit in Mostar, explain the history of the area and give some personal insight into the country. They are also the perfect people to recommend local food and restaurants.

We started at the Spanish Gymnasium, which is the first public school in Mostar (the word derives from the European term for high school rather than being an exercise centre). It’s about a 20 minute walk from the centre of the city and is a good meeting point as its orange colour is very easy to spot. It is a working school so entering the building isn’t possible.

The gymnasium is located next to the Zrinjevac City Park, which is a pretty park that has a rather unusual statue. We really weren’t expecting to see a life-sized (well, apparently it’s 4cm short of life-sized) statue of Bruce Lee. Apparently he was chosen as a symbol of diversity and couldn’t be perceived to have an affiliation with any of the local ethnicities, but rather represented “loyalty, skill, friendship and justice.”

places to visit Mostar

When walking around Mostar the scars of the war remain. We walked through the former financial district – many of the buildings are still shells. Our guide explained that while reconstruction work had taken place following the war, the capital Sarajevo had received more money to rebuild. There was still a lot of work that needed to be undertaken throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Walking across the Most Musula bridge we could see good views to the hills above. Although walking up to the summit would ensure a magnificent panorama of the city, the area sadly still contains land-mines.

We then headed towards the older part of the city. The Karadoz Bey Mosque is one of the largest mosques in the region and dates from the same year as the Stari Most bridge.

Karadoz Bey Mosque mostar

It is possible to visit the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque. It is located on a side street just away from the main street.

Outside is a fountain traditionally used for washing before entering the mosque to pray.

For visitors it costs 4 Euros to enter the mosque and a further 4 Euros to climb the minaret. Photos were allowed and, although we asked if they would like us to remove our shoes and cover our heads, we were told that it wasn’t necessary.

The interior of the mosque itself is quite compact and the climb to the top of the minaret was fairly claustrophobic.

However the view across the river to the bridge was spectacular. The balcony of the minaret was pretty narrow so we were lucky that there was only one other visitor there. You can also enter the small garden adjacent to the mosque for more river views.

Places to visit Mostar

Wandering through the old town, there are lots of shops and restaurants. It is very touristy and can get crowded during the day. There are also a couple of museums in this area, The Museum of War and Genocide Victims 1992-1995 and also the Bridge Museum, which we were keen to visit, but sadly it was closed. There were reminders of the war as we walked through the streets.

Approaching Stari Most again we crossed the river over the old bridge. The steps can be quite slippery.

Places to visit Mostar

One thing that is very popular is watching locals who dive from the bridge into the crystal clear water below. You’ll see them hanging around at the top of the bridge, sitting on the top railing, and they will usually dive once they have raised enough money – normally in the region of 50 Euros – from tourists. You will be able to tell when they are ready to dive when either one of them dons a wetsuit or they start splashing themselves with cold water because the temperature of the river is extremely cold, especially in spring and early summer. We were some distance from the bridge, upriver, when we saw a diver preparing to go. Despite the camera being focussed and on full zoom, we only managed to capture the splash! There are diving competitions held in Mostar each year.

Places to visit Mostar

It’s worth noting that the bridge is a focal point for tourists and, because the city is only a couple of hours’ drive away from Croatia, it gets very busy during the late morning and afternoon as day trippers arrive in their coachloads. The surrounding streets and bazaars will be teeming with people. So staying overnight to explore the area and view the bridge when it’s less busy is definitely recommended.

Our walking tour concluded by another stone bridge – the Crooked Bridge – just a five minute walk away from Stari Most. It dates from 1558. It was strategically important because it allowed traffic to be controlled from the towers of the old bridge. This, too, is a reconstruction – sadly the original was destroyed during floods in 1999, but it was rebuilt in 2002.

Places to visit Mostar

Places to Visit in Mostar, Dining Out

There are loads of eateries offering tasty food in Mostar. The restaurants closest to the bridge, or those with a good view of it, are likely to be more expensive than those in the surrounding streets. Mostar was our first introduction to Bosnian cuisine. The national dish is considered to be cevapi – little meaty sausages/kebabs served inside a bread called somun which is a flatbread like pitta but has a really nice focaccia-like spongey texture. It’s served with chopped raw onions, which are quite sweet in flavour rather than being too pungent. You usually get a choice of a small portion (5 little sausages) or larger portion (10 little sausages). Many of the dishes we tried in both Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia were accompanied by ajvar, a condiment made from red peppers (it isn’t spicy).

There are plenty of sweet dishes on offer as well. Baklava is a familiar dessert, a sweet, filo-based pastry, filled with layers of nuts and a sweet syrup, popular across the region and the Middle East. We particularly enjoyed hurmasica, a pastry doused in lemon-flavoured sugar syrup. It comes in an oblong shape and is very sweet but really delicious with a nice gooey cake-like texture.

hurmasica dessert

And a meal wouldn’t be complete without a cup of incredibly strong, rich, sweet coffee. Coffee culture is very important in this part of the world.

Places to visit Mostar

There was also a very good craft beer emporium in Mostar,on Gojka Vukovica, close to the Crooked Bridge. It had a wide variety of local beers on offer, brewed in both Mostar and Sarajevo. We particularly enjoyed Marakuja, an American Pale Ale, Onano Maze, a rich porter, Darkness, a dry Irish Stout and Kukambera, a cucumber-infused lager which was really refreshing on a hot spring day.

And if you’re after something stronger, rakija is the local brandy made from fermented fruit. Its alcohol content can range from around 40% to 60%. It’s not uncommon for local people to make their own rakija. One of the guides we met told us that it was the cure for all ailments! What’s nice about it is that, even though the alcohol content is strong, you don’t just get a blast of booze, the flavours of the base fruit really do come through – it’s a pleasant tipple.

After dinner, when the day trippers have melted away, it’s lovely to wander through the city at night. The bridge and local buildings are lit up beautifully and Mostar becomes a much more peaceful place.

Places to visit Mostar
Places to visit Mostar

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The Leh to Manali Highway

No Bridge Over Troubled Water

See the sublime splendour of the Indian Himalayas, the majestic snow-capped peaks, the stark and ethereal beauty of the world’s highest and most romantic mountain range! The magnificence of nature revealed in all its craggy, towering glory, waiting just for us. After a wonderful few days exploring Ladakh, we were to travel the long and winding Leh to Manali highway to take us from lofty Ladakh to the lush valleys of Himachal Pradesh.

Indus and Zanskar

It’s just that the holiday sales pitch promotes the magisterial tranquillity of the experience without fully explaining the other, less expected, ‘joys’ that await the hapless tourist on their journey of a lifetime. It’s the laws of physics applied in a wider context, as every action has an equal and opposite reaction so every experience of aesthetic perfection must necessarily be tempered with some form of discomfort or inconvenience.

Travelling the Leh to Manali highway is a remarkable journey that takes three days. Our mode of transport for this illustrious road trip was a coach. If you are travelling in a coach on a long and winding road be aware that it could be bumpy. Don’t, whatever you do, sit in the back seats – you may want to relive those school trips where the cool kids all sat at the back of the bus, but the suspension and the road will have you bouncing around all over the place.  

Leh to Sarchu

Soon after we left Leh we crossed the Taglang La – the second highest road in the world (at the time) at 5328m. When the road marker stated, ‘Unbelievable is not it?’ we couldn’t help but agree.

Taglang La pass

Then we wound our way through the Gata loops, a series of 21 hair-pin bends, which required the coach to engage in some mildly terrifying 3-point turns in order get around each curve, with the driver’s assistant getting out at each bend to take the vehicle’s wheels to the very edge of the road with its precipice below. Indeed much of the journey involved travelling along single track roads which skirted long drops to the valley below.

Leh Manali highway edge of the road

It is a lonely, desolate road, but also a strangely beautiful road.

Leh Manali highway

But it can be a dangerous road. All along the highway we saw evidence of vehicles that had not stayed on the highway and had plummeted several hundred metres into the valley below and were gently rusting in the river.

Leh Manali highway crashed lorry

Along the route are camps where it’s possible to get a break and a cup of tea or a snack. We would see many workers whose job it was to maintain the road each year.

Leh to Manali rest stop

We were headed for Sarchu where we camped at 4200m.

Camping at Sarchu

Considering the remoteness of the location the accommodation was good – our tent even had an en-suite toilet, basically a long drop loo with a seat. There was no shower but no need even to think about showering, or even getting undressed, as the temperature was very cold indeed. This was the highest altitude we have ever spent the night and, although we both had slight headaches, were generally fine.

Sarchu to Jispa

The following day would involve the long and winding road climbing to 4891m at the top of the Baralacha La Pass and then descending to Jispa which was a pretty place to stop for the night. It was possible to have a walk around the area – much needed after sitting on a coach for hours on end.

Jispa stupa
Jispa

Jispa to Manali

The next day would offer something altogether unexpected. The Leh to Manali highway is a beautiful one and a treacherous one, but it is also the only one. Maintained for the short window of the year that it is actually traversable, the long and winding road is a marvel of man against nature. Except nature always, always wins. A case in point: scattered along the expansive road are a number of bridges crossing unfeasibly deep gorges through which the mighty Indus flows, plunging hundreds of feet into foaming rivers of kinetic danger. These bridges, as innumerable signs tell you, can only take one – that is one – vehicle at a time at a maximum speed of 5mph. So naturally a mini-convoy of four articulated trucks decided to play Indy 5000 across a particularly vulnerable bridge with inevitable girder-crashing results.

Leh Manali highway damaged bridge

The result? One non-bridge slap-bang in the middle of the one of the world’s most inhospitable roads with ‘no-go’ season rapidly approaching and little opportunity to retrace our steps.

We had already travelled for two days. There wasn’t really any going back. It started raining. The ravine approached, with its considerable drop to rocks and fast flowing river, strewn with debris in busted and rusted decay. When we finally arrived at the crossing, the bridge was being slowly reassembled to make it safe to travel across the fissure of fear. Unfortunately it wouldn’t be ready in time for us to cross. But cross we must. Fortunately there was a solution.

Crossing the Indus

A petrifying solution that made rickety wobbling across a rusty bridge inside a heavy coach utter bliss compared to what was on offer: A cage. An open metal cage. A cage that needed to be accessed from the edge of a slippery jetty over a rocky fall. And then it was hoisted across the raging river on a rope, with the claustrophobic couple of passengers squished in together, along with their possessions, suddenly wishing they had packed less and not eaten so much. Horrifying consequences consolidated in the imagination as we were compacted in the cage of doom and pulled across the ravine in abject terror.

Fortunately these concerns proved to be unfounded as the cage glided across the turbulent torrent and deposited both human cargo and their luggage at the destination. Safe at last and on terra firma, rather than experiencing terror further. Soaked to the skin but with our lives and luggage intact, we dripped with joy. It’s a shame the coach didn’t make it (there was no cage and rope for the vehicle) but a back-up had been made available on the other side.

Leh Manali highway

The experience had left us in much need of recovery sustenance. Fortunately for the ravenous rescuees there was a roadside café that offered a vat of dal and a plethora of freshly made chapatis that beckoned consumption. After such an ordeal any food may have been welcome, but this was the best tasting dal experience ever, the spice a delight, the texture a perfect consistency, with the forever welcome taste of fresh chapati allowing for distribution of the soupy lentil joy to instigate itself on the palette and in the stomach. Survival dal! A memorable meal.

Then it was simply a drive over the Rohtang pass (3977m)…

Rohtang pass

…and into the lush valleys of Himachal Pradesh towards Manali.

Leh Manali highway

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Luang Prabang Lao PDR (Please Don’t Rush)

There’s a general assumption that the cuisines of many countries in South East Asia – Thailand, Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam – are pretty much the same but that would be doing them a great disservice. While they may share many ingredients and seasonings, each cuisine is different and it is a joy to be able to discover the nuances of the foods from each country. Lao, for example, being landlocked, relies on the river for its piscine bounties rather than the sea. Hence most of the fish served will be river fish. River weed, dried in in the sun and flavoured with seasonings, makes for a tasty snack. Luang Prabang, Lao’s former capital, located in the north of the country, lies on the Mekong river at its confluence with the Nam Khan.

Luang Prabang Lao

It’s a lovely, laid back town with plenty of temples and palaces to explore, which are largely within easy walking distance.

Wat Xieng Thong is the best known of the temples, located a short walk from the confluence. The main Wat has an intricate design and a beautiful tree of life mural.

The Royal Palace was built in 1904 when Lao was under French occupation. The monarchy was overthrown by the communists in 1975 and the building converted into a museum.

Crossing the Mekong and following a short hike up a hill you can reach the small temple of Wat Chomphet with its old stupa and Wat Long Khone. It’s more peaceful and less touristy on this side of the river.

It’s also possible to hire a longboat and drift downriver at sunset, cool glass of beer in hand, enjoying the colours of the evening.

Lao’s formal name is Lao PDR – People’s Democratic Republic. Informally, locals will let you know that PDR stands for Please Don’t Rush – a wise philosophy which also means that you shouldn’t worry if service at restaurants is slow. (Actually, we didn’t notice particularly slow service anywhere we went.) But it’s a good reminder to relax and enjoy your time in this friendly country.

Luang Prabang Lao has a number of bars and restaurants which range from cheap eats to higher end offerings. Utopia is a short walk away from the town, set atop a cliff which overlooks the river. It’s a very laid-back place with a cool vibe and is located in a quirky garden setting.

There is a sorrowful side to the garden design though. Many of the flower pots are actually bomb shells from the time of the Vietnam War when, over the course of nine years, the US dropped roughly two million tonnes of bombs on Lao in a secret attempt to support the royal Lao government against the communists led by Pathet Lao, as well as impact the Ho Chi Minh trail. The country remains the most bombed per head of the population in history.  Worse still, a significant amount of the ordnance – about a third of the devices dropped – failed to detonate and, more than forty years later, there is still a huge problem with unexploded bombs that remain embedded in the ground, despite some international efforts to clear them.

Utopia is popular amongst backpackers for its chilled atmosphere during the day (it has activities such as yoga lessons available) and livens up a lot at night, and it offers local and western food.

One of the best restaurants in Luang Prabang Lao for local food is Tamarind, on the Kingkitsarath Rd, and they specialise in local cuisine. They offer tasting menus which give visitors the chance to try various specialities. It’s a fantastic introduction to local fare. It’s a popular restaurant so it’s worth booking ahead if you can, although we got lucky with a walk-in for lunch.

We started with Lao-Lao shots as an aperitif. Lao-Lao is rice whiskey. Its name isn’t a cute term of endearment – the two words have different tones in pronunciation and hence different meanings. The first Lao means “alcohol” and the second means “from Lao”. The whiskey has a mild flavour but is pretty potent at round 40-45% alcohol.

The starter was chunky bamboo and vegetable soup. A lot of Lao food can be searingly hot, with chilli often providing the heat, but this wasn’t; whilst still spicy, it had a piquancy in the seasoning that allowed the flavour of the vegetables and herbs to shine through.

Luang Prabang Lao

Then came a platter of Lao specialities. These included dinky little sausages with a variety of relishes, which varied in the amount of spice they delivered, as well as kaipen – crispy sun-dried river weed coated with sesame seeds.

Luang Prabang Lao

The next dish was fragrant lemongrass stuffed with chicken which felt like a bit of a contradiction. Usually you would expect lemongrass to flavour the meat but this was soft minced chicken, delicately spiced, placed into the bulbous part of the lemongrass stalk, then steamed and fried. The gentle scent of the lemongrass imparted a delicate citrus flavour. It was accompanied by herbed river fish steamed in a banana leaf along with local vegetables.

Finally, purple sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with tamarind sauce – which was sweet and slightly sour as well as delightfully sticky – rounded off a splendid meal.

Drinking ultimate Lao coffee in Vientiane
Moo larb
Recipe for Moo Larb

Ramblings and Restaurants Around the River in Kratie, Cambodia

Kratie (pronounced Kra-cheh) is a laid back town in Northern Cambodia, right on the mighty Mekong river. It’s a small town that you can easily walk around and has some sights to enjoy.

The most notable are the very rare freshwater irawaddy dolphins, a small group of which live in the river close to the town. They are not close enough that you can easily walk to the viewing , you need to arrange a trip, usually via tuk tuk. Most hotels/guest houses will be able to arrange this on the day, just decide a pickup time and location. The dolphins are most active in the morning or late afternoon/early evening, so it’s worth planning a trip when you are more likely to see them. Of course, everybody else will be visiting at that time too! As with all wildlife viewings, luck plays a big part in whether you see the dolphins.

The boat launch area is about 11km north of Kratie, you arrive, register and are then taken to a boat. The dolphins are a joy to watch  but very tricky to photograph – you only see them pop out of the water to catch a breath so by the time you have located them and focused the camera they have vanished back into the river. Better just to enjoy viewing them.

Our delightful driver waited for us while we were out on the river then brought us back to the town centre.

Another enjoyable morning in Kratie can be spent exploring the Mekong island of Koh Trong. You catch a ferry from boat port and it’s a short journey across the river. Once you have landed you can hire a scooter or a bicycle and circumnavigate the island, stopping off for a swim or a drink at some of the resorts (relatively expensive) or cafe.

Cambodian cuisine is delicious and there are plenty of restaurants catering to all tastes and budgets.

We enjoyed the cool and friendly Balcony Guest House and Restaurant, which offered Cambodia beer by the pitcher as you sit on the eponymous balcony enjoying a view of the river. If you happen to face bar-wards you can also learn a few words of Cambodian.

A restaurant that was rather special was Le Tonle. It’s a tourism restaurant aimed at training young people who plan to work in the hospitality sector. Tourism is a significant part of Cambodia’s economy and the idea is that young people are able to learn on the job, serving real customers.

On arrival we were greeted by not one but two front of house staff – the trainer and the trainee. This approach continued through the meal as the waiting staff took our order, served our drinks and then our dinner, guided gently by their supervisor. Both trainers and trainees were utterly delightful. Although we didn’t stay there, Le Tonle also has a guest house so that the training can extend to the hotel side of the hospitality business.

The food, also made by trainee chefs, was absolutely delicious. Using fresh ingredients the menu offers Cambodian, western and fusion dishes. Obviously we recommend the local options. A particular highlight was diced raw river fish and vegetables, marinated in a coconut and lime juice sauce and served inside a coconut shell, accompanied by steamed rice.

Le Tonle is a great initiative. We would love to see more social enterprise restaurants like this – especially those where young people get a chance to learn and hopefully use the opportunity to develop a career. Even if our young hosts were occasionally a little shy or they needed a bit of guidance while serving food or drinks, their warmth and enthusiasm was charming, and we wished them all well for the future.

Exploring The Tambopata National Reserve in Peru

Welcome to the Jungle

While Peru may be more famous for the remarkable Machu Picchu, cosmopolitan Lima, the enigmatic Nazca lines and the serenely beautiful Lake Titicaca, a significant part of the country lies within the Amazon basin and hence it is possible to visit the rainforest. The Rio Tambopata is a tributary of the Madre de Dios which flows into the Mamore River, becomes the Madeira River and eventually meets the Amazon. You can fly into Puerto Maldonado, catch a boat upriver and visit a number of lodges, all located within the Tambopata National Reserve. There are loads of excursions available – all in pristine rainforest and the wildlife viewing opportunities are plentiful. The jungle is hot, sticky, humid and full of mosquitoes and other creatures that can give you a really nasty bite. But it is also wild, exciting, loud, beautiful and utterly fascinating.

The trip also triggered an interest in plants as food and medicine that continues to this day. We stayed at a lodge located in primary forest, a three hour journey up the Tambopata river.

Tambopata National Reserve

At the lodge, our room had 3 internal walls and no external wall, so it looked out at the rainforest. It was amazing to be able to lie in bed listening to the incessant cacophony of sounds, primarily from the birds and insects.

Jungle lodge bedroom

When you gaze out at the jungle, the jungle gazes back at you. It can also invade your room and cause jolly mayhem when you find frogs in the shower, possums on the bed and giant insects that fly in while you’re sitting on the loo. There was no electricity in the rooms so we relied on candles and kerosene lamps and the showers were cold water only (not a problem when it’s hot and humid). The guides and staff were excellent, the food was great and there were cocktails in the evening – which was most refined.

GUIDED EXCURSIONS IN THE TAMBOPATA NATIONAL RESERVE

There are lots of guided excursions on offer, walking in wellies along muddy trails or canoeing across an oxbow lake (which was apparently full of piranha and anaconda – eep!).

The birds and animals were fascinating and indeed we saw capybara, peccary (wild pigs), caiman (alligators), beautiful macaw, piranha, giant guinea pigs, taira, stinky birds and caught just a glimpse of a shy tarantula that wouldn’t come out to play. We avoided fire ants and hairy caterpillars. And fell over in the mud.

One of the foods eaten by locals is termites. You can find their nests in trees. They’ll come out quickly enough if you disturb the nest. You can let them run onto your finger and just eat them. They taste minty. Obviously make sure you know what a termite looks like; the ants in the jungle bite and their bite is painful.

The plants in the Tambopata National Reserve were particularly fascinating. The trees were amazing – so huge that their roots alone were taller than we were, a strangler fig that we could walk inside.

Our guide showed us how the plants are used by the local people. There were leaves that produced a purple dye when you squeezed them, leaves with an underside so rough it could be used as sandpaper, vines that can be woven, vines that are strong enough to swing on (Tarzan style) and quinine bark.

This is a walking tree. It grows straight up but in a jungle where the canopy is so dense that the forest floor is very dark, it needs to ‘move’ to find the light. It does this by growing roots from the stem in a particular direction. Old roots on the other side just die off. In this way the tree can slowly shift across the jungle and grow towards the light. You can see the new root here is a light brown colour – the tree is ‘moving’ to the right.

MEDICINAL USES FOR THE RAINFOREST PLANTS IN THE TAMBOPATA NATIONAL RESERVE

We were also given a tour of the medicinal uses for the plants by a shaman. He talked about our perception of plants as ‘alternative medicine’ commenting that these are really natural remedies that have been used for centuries. We ate leaves that made our tongues numb – a natural anaesthetic. He used a variety of plants to cure various ailments, from a natural viagra to a concoction that will dissolve rotting teeth painlessly. There are trees that exude a resin which hardens and can be used as a natural plaster cast to set bones. And the sap from a blood tree will cure simple cuts, bruises and mosquito bites.

The symbiosis in the jungle was amazing: the bullet ant has venom similar to that of a cobra and they say that if you get bitten by one, it feels like being shot. Apparently the pain is excruciating for 24 hours. The best relief for the pain can be found in the shape of a vine that grows on the tree under which the bullet ants nest. This particular vine is pollenated only by bullet ants – the cure located right next to the source.

Tambopata National Reserve

The plants of the rainforest have, unsurprisingly, been used by pharmaceutical companies, many of which extract the active ingredient from the plants, patent them and sell them back to the Peruvians at hyper-inflated prices. Sigh.

The lodge is run in a sustainable way that benefits the local people and environment. 60% of the profits from tourism go back to the local community. These have helped build a secondary school and some of the pupils have been educated there, studied English in Lima and have returned to the jungle to become guides. Local farmers can’t get enough money at the market for their fruit to cover transportation costs, so the lodge buys fruit directly from the farm across the river. We visited the farm and tasted fresh bananas, star fruit (much more tangy than the ones that have travelled halfway across the world), sugar cane, lemongrass, pineapple and more.

We also followed a brazil nut trail and had a bash at opening the hard pods (which contain about 18 nuts) with a machete. We still have all our fingers.

Brazil nut in the Tambopata

Exploring the jungle was exhausting and elating – a truly fascinating place. And at the end of each day we could relax, watching the sun set over the Tampobata before going to bed. And then we would see whether the possum had beaten us to it.

Tambopata National Reserve sunset

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