Vern: The shared taxi from Santa Cruz to Samaipata leaves when full so we sat down in a little taxi office and waited. A few men wandered in and added their names to a list on a chalk board so Andrea insisted I add our names too so we wouldn't be forgotten about, and we sat patiently and ate an ice cream and twiddled our thumbs. Finally a car filled up and we left though no other passenger names were ever added to the chalkboard. We enquired and it turned out to be a list of drivers who wanted to work (in order of appearance). Oops! I guess they're going to be a little confused when they've got a pavement full of passengers and their calls to Andrea or Vern to pull the car around go unanswered.
We arrived three hours later in Samaipata, a small town said to be a melting pot of cultures because it is located at the junction of where the Amazon to the north, meets the Andes to the west, meets the 'Chaco' plains to the south and for the last few thousand years the tribes occupying these regions met here to trade and mixed.
It was like a ghost town, the only person in the tree filled town-plaza was a taxi driver offering to take us back to Santa Cruz. No thanks, just got here. All the restaurants and little businesses were closed and stray dogs sniffed at orange peels in the empty streets. This town isn't sleepy, it's comatose. (An example, if I may: The tour agency opposite our hostel was open for a half an hour out of the five days we spent in town. Its little blue (i) information icon sign which hung out from above the door blew around in the wind, making Hitchcockesque creaking sounds creepy enough to make us walk on the other side of the street).
That evening we searched for an internet cafe. One was closed, one was full of kids playing network games and despite 'Internet' being painted on the wall on either side of the third-and-last place, the eleven year old running the counter dismissed our request to get online with, "Solo juegos." Only games. "It's like bloody Lord of the Flies round here. These kids are keeping grown-ups off the Internet so as not to interfere with their World of Warcraft sessions!", Andrea hissed and I burst out laughing. (At an internet cafe the following day, after sitting at the computer for twenty minutes watching the Google logo load pixel by pixel, the manager started clapping at us - a less than subtle instruction to leave. All he has to do is sit there all day while the money rolls in as desperate people use his crappy internet connection but of course he must have a lunch break so he kicked us all out.)
In the afternoon on our first full day in town we strolled down a dusty track out of town to a delightful animal refuge/zoo. It was the polar opposite of the zoo in Santa Cruz and we loved it. Puppies ran amok and monkeys swung freely around the trees and rafters. Run by hippies and volunteer animal lovers, there was no clear ticket office and the woman behind the ordering window at the tea house was in a daze washing dishes with a howler monkey on her shoulder. The animals aren't caged unless they have to be, so its like being in a big garden with dogs, cats and foxes running about on the grass; monkeys and parrots in the trees and on the rafters of the covered patio and the odd horse popping by occasionally. A few coatis, armadillos and chickens hung out in a large cage, as were some of the grumpier monkeys. We picked up a piece of fruit and a curious yellow monkey swung from branch to branch until it was in reaching distance and then snatched its snack and shyly leaped away to a safe eating distance. A big black monkey bounded over to shake hands but got a bit spooked by some over excited local children who were prodding and poking the animals who they could get a hold of. A German volunteer was battling to keep the naughty kids under control, and a little later a pack of dogs pounced onto a youngster who'd been teasing them and he burst into tears. Served him right really. A friendly howler monkey came over and sat on our shoulders; it would wrap its tail around your neck, stretch its arms around your head and nuzzle its head in your hair. While I was helping the monkey climb off of Andrea and on to another visitor I accidentally surprised it with a little shove and it turned around and bit me. I probably deserved it and decided not to head to hospital as it didn't break the skin and is unlikely to be rabid. However, I told Andrea to put me down and end my suffering if I start showing symptoms that Rabies is turning my brain to mush. Thinking about it later, I shouldn't have been so insistent because almost daily Andrea classifies something I say or do as crazy.
The next morning we piled into a 4-wheel drive which scrambled down a long muddy road to 'El Codo de los Andes' - the Elbow of the Andes. The unmistakable unescapable mountain range runs down through Columbia and Ecuador, swings inland in Peru, bends at its elbow in Bolivia and then stretches out to Argentina and Chile. We stopped outside a community named for the view, Bella Vista, for some dramatic photographs of the Andes abruptly beginning with sheer cliffs rising out of the jungle and up into dome shaped mountains. Some of the rock faces are terra-cotta red, as if like most of us its elbow is prone to bloody scuffs.
We started the six-hour hike with a descent into lush dense jungle. The ground was damp and the air humid and a few giant mushrooms and colorful flowers peppered an environment that was otherwise just very very green. Our guide hacked away with his machete and we followed closely: through huge bamboo stems bent into arches, across clear streams, past waterfalls and up and down slippery slopes. We had lunch in a pretty little clearing and then started a zig zagging uphill climb out of the jungle basin and up to one of the lower Andean peaks. Halfway up the mountain on a big tree, a rope swing hung off a large branch which extended over a sharp drop back down into the jungle. I put my foot into the rope and pushed off. For a micro-second it feels like committing suicide by stepping of a cliff but gravity pulls the slack out of the rope and I swung out over the jungle, then seemed to remain suspended out there in mid air for a while--like Wiley Coyote before accepting his fate--then came careering back toward the mountainside with an equal and opposite force. It was rather tricky to disengage from the swing, as the path is very thin, one foot is tied up and the swing really wants to head back out over the canyon, but a fellow hiker caught me and I hopped out and off, then he and his wife swung a few times. Then Andrea went and I vowed to catch her on her backswing. Unfortunately, this was much easier said than done and I misjudged everything. As she swung toward me, I grabbed the rope with my right hand and then threw my left arm around Andrea's waist and then stepped forward to steady us and absorb brace against the forces pulling in the opposite direction. But my foot didn't connect with any ground. The path was too thin and I'd stepped off of the cliff. The two of us swung back out over the canyon, Andrea in the proper position and me with a white knuckled fist clenching the rope and clinging to Andrea, while my legs dangled freely in mid air. With some help we recovered on our return swing and successfully disengaged. I was punished for my stupidity with some small sharp spires in my shins which had broken off the leaves of the baby palms growing below the path and with which my legs collided. Andrea was fine if a little rattled but after some stunned silence we laughed through the shock of it all and wished that we'd caught our little stunt on film.
The path continued on to the mountain's summit - a spectacular view point - and then back down to the road where the vehicle was waiting to whisk us back into town. We were muddy and exhausted and after a warm shower we slept very well that night.