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bolivia

The Bolivian Rainforest

The Bolivian Rainforest

Rurrenabaque

After arriving to the La Paz airport in one piece, I made my way to the gate, down the jetway, and onto a bus to take us to our plane. I heard the plane was small but its lack of size exceeded my expectations. A single prop plane with 10 rows of 2 seats split by an aisle, and no cockpit door to prevent us from hearing any bell or alarm that may sound, it was the smallest plane in which I’ve ridden. The flight was uneventful, and we taxied to the Rurrenabaque airport, which is a term they use lightly. It was one building where the departure and arrival sections were split by a mosquito net, and the security checkpoint consisted of manually (and casually) searching your bag. I went from the airport to my El Curichal, where I’d stay one night before heading out in the morning.

The Jungle

I booked two separate three-day tours through Fluvial Tours, the Jungle and the Pampas. They presented two very different types of excursions, and I didn’t want to choose, so I splurged a bit and booked both. Yet they didn’t know, even the day before, on which I would go first. Luckily they had similar packing lists. I got to the office that morning to find out Jungle was first stop, and my group was me and 4 British kids on gap year after high school. Not my ideal group selection…19 year olds just seem to have different priorities while traveling, but they seemed cool enough. We hopped on a 3-hour boat ride up the river into the jungle, and hauled our stuff and food for the trip 15 minutes through woods and rivers to our camp. Good news: they told us we should rent boots cause they had gotten a lot of rain recently, so we were prepared. The bad news: they gave me two right boots and of course I didn’t try both on because the first one fit perfectly. So for the next few days I had dry, yet crooked, feet. After getting settled and eating lunch, we went out on our first of three jungle explorations. Very unstructured in nature, our guide Eliberto would just lead us through the jungle, creating a path with his machete as necessary, and teach us about any animals or unique plant life we came across. Trip 1 was a little light on wildlife (and this was expected…the Pampas is billed as the trip to see a large variety of animals) but we did see a few massive macaws, and learned a ton about the different plants and how the natives (like our guide) would use them. For example, we saw the tree sap they’d put on the end of a stick and throw into a small pond, which removed the oxygen from the water and killed the fish. Angling made easy. That was our last adventure for day 1, and after dinner, we just relaxed until bedtime, which comes early with no electricity.

Our second day was much more active - within the hour we ran into a family of yellow monkeys and chased them around for a while. And in the next few hours, we saw an iguana, wild pig, a few tarantulas, and a deer run off. We sampled some bark from the tree which the natives use to cure malaria. Extremely bitter, it took about an hour for the taste to leave my tongue, but I’m telling myself it’s pretty much like I took a vaccine against malaria, so it’s worth it. At least I think that’s how science works. After dinner, we grabbed our flashlights and went into the darkness for a nighttime walk for wildlife. What it turned into was a spider excursion. Big spiders, small spiders, all terrifying. I learned what a tarantula’s web looks like (and would later see one on the roof of both our bedroom and the dining room – fortunately this was while we were leaving).

After breakfast on day 3, we sat down with our guide Eliberto and made some forest jewelry. It brings you back to elementary school arts and crafts time. Rings for the hombres and necklaces for the chicas, all out of acorns and seeds found from the woods just outside of camp. I’m not necessarily a jewelry guy but I’ll wear this ring proudly for the rest of my trip (or at least until I lose it). Eliberto was just the type of guide I’d want for a voyage into the deep jungle. He was born in the jungle 60 years ago, and has made it his life. He spoke very little English (which gave me more helpful practice as a translator) but loved sharing his passion and knowledge of the rainforest. He only had two years of schooling (where he would have to walk an hour through the jungle to attend). He said “If you ask me about the stars I can’t explain them…but I can tell you about the jungle. I know the jungle.” He also claimed he cured his own rheumatoid arthritis by drinking a tea from the jungle for 12 straight days, followed by downing a bottle of whiskey (clinical studies soon to follow, I’m sure). But his belief and passion in the powers of nature were important factors in the experience. After our last lunch, we hauled our things back to the boat for our ride back into town. Right when we got on the boat was about when it started absolutely pouring down rain. And this wasn’t one of them fancy boats with cabins underneath…no, we were in the elements. But one thing I’ve learned and try to reinforce is not to worry or stress about things out of your control, especially the weather. Any rain you’re in is just water, and any inconvenience due to it is just temporary. Like Luke Bryan so eloquently put it, rain is a good thing. So, we arrived back into town, a little damp, and I went back to the same hostel for a night of rest before the second excursion.

The Pampas

I come back to the tour company office the following morning to meet my new group for discovering the wetlands – a Japanese couple and a triad of nice, young, good looking Australian girls (I can’t catch a break, right?). You never know how it will be as a solo traveler when you get paired with groups of people who already know each other, but we got along great and couldn’t have asked for a better group to explore with.

For this journey, we took a three-hour drive along unpaved roads, stopping for livestock in the road as required, towards the riverboat port. Close to our destination, we stopped for lunch, when we realized our driver had disappeared. Waiting around impatiently for 20 minutes or so, he finally showed up again, being dropped off by a car outside the restaurant. Judging by the sheepish smile on his face, our working theory was it was his local girlfriend. Unable to confirm though.

When we arrived at our boat, we met our guide Taz, and set out to look for wildlife as we headed towards the lodge. Taz handed around a bag of coca leaves (very popular amongst Bolivians for help with altitude sickness and an energy boost) and a bag of baking soda, which maximizes the effect of the leaves (not a bag of cocaine, as one unnamed Australian thought). We cruised up to a tree on the river that was filled with yellow squirrel monkeys. Taz calls my name and tosses me half of a banana to feed them. The plan in my head was to calmly break it into a few pieces and feed them peacefully. They had a different idea. I turn around and the monkeys are rushing the boat; probably 4 or 5 jumped on me and one lucky winner ripped the banana out of my hands, as the others retreated, disappointed and hungry. It was hilarious and terrifying all at the same time – I have a video that I’ll post, although I wish I could dub over the sound to make my screams sound much more manly.

We got to our lodge, a series of huts elevated over the water, and I was pleasantly surprised to find I had a private room. These last two stays in the rainforest were also my first experience sleeping in mosquito nets (the Aussies thought that was weird), and I’d be fine not doing it again. They’re lifesavers in an environment like this, but are as effective as keeping in heat as they are keeping out mozzies. We got a quick tour of the facilities, which included introduction to their “pet caimans”, one over 12 feet in length, who hung around under the dining room for meat scraps or clumsy tourists.

We had our first meal on site which, just like the jungle tour, was massive. One reason I’d recommend Fluvial Tours was the sheer amount of food they give you. Prepared by a nice lady that stays on site, they’re classic Bolivian meals with meat, 3-4 different carb options, and heaps of fresh fruit and veg. All you need to do is justify it by the calories you burned hiking and there’s no food guilt. After dinner, we went for our first round of nighttime caiman searching, as their eyes hover above the water and eerily reflect the flashlights, but we didn’t have much success. Back to get some sleep for the next full day ahead of us.

After breakfast (consisting of three different types of deep fried donuts), we went out to search for anacondas. Now this doesn’t mean ride around in a boat as our guide looks for anacondas…no, we put on our mud boots, and walked around in marsh, purposefully seeking massive predatorial snakes. As we got started, we asked Taz what we should do if we find one. “Uh…step on his head and grab him by the tail…or just call me and I’ll come over”. I just decided to blindly trust Taz with my life, and went in full steam ahead into the marsh. It’s one of those feelings where you don’t really know if you want to have a successful search or not, and since it was wet season and everything was flooded, it was truly like searching for a needle in a haystack. For better or worse, we left without finding an anaconda, but we also with all our limbs intact.

The afternoon excursion called for swimming with dolphins and fishing for piranhas. As we got to the spot to swim with dolphins, there wasn’t much activity, but we jumped in anyways to cool off. Taz, how do we know there are no piranhas in here? “No, it’s very safe here no worries”. Again…blind trust. After a quick dip, we went to the piranha fishing spot, which looked unnervingly similar to where we were swimming fifteen minutes earlier. There wasn’t much technique to piranha fishing – put some raw meat on a hook and throw it in the water. Not the smartest of fish. Due to the rainy season, we were met with limited success here as well (one fish between everyone on the boat), and after trying 4 or 5 different spots, we called it quits to go watch sunset with a few drinks. After the sun went down, we grabbed a few bottles of wine for the road and returned to camp. We split up the one piranha we caught as an appetizer, and it was a surprisingly clean tasting fish. After we had “finished” it, I watched Taz take literally every single piece of meat off the bone and give us back the skeleton. Apparently, he had plenty of experience eating piranhas. The post-dinner round 2 of caiman searching was a bit more successful – Taz pulled alongside a baby and grabbed it out of the water for us to hold. The moms only watch after their babies for the first year and then leave them to discover the world for themselves, so we returned him to the water and wished him luck. We capped the night off by enjoying the last glass of wine and good conversation in hammocks – a level of comfort that I wish I could bottle up and return to often.

Our last morning started with a 6 AM wake up call to experience the morning sounds of the pampas. Navigating just by oar, you got to hear the jungle awaken and the birds, monkeys, and other wildlife welcome the sunrise. Probably the most tranquil experience of my trip thus far, yet bittersweet because you knew it was coming to an end soon. We had a second go of swimming with dolphins, and had more success. Although it isn’t Sea World where they’re swimming up to you before doing backflips for treats – it’d probably be more appropriately named “swimming kind of close to dolphins”. And as long as you could ignore the peculiar smell in the water and not worry about long term health concerns, it was a cool experience.

One last boat ride back to the car, and we said our goodbyes to Taz. I won’t soon forget that man, he had such a fascinating story. He also only had a few years of schooling, but had somehow managed to learn five languages and travel the world helping research rainforest life and spread his knowledge. When I think of overcoming adversity and making the best of your circumstances, he will always come to mind. And when I combine the experiences I had with the great people I met, this week of exploration will be one of my favorite experiences of my travels, and the memories will stay with me forever.

 

A Week in La Paz

A Week in La Paz

Cochabomba

Since I had to kill some time for my yellow fever shot to become effective, and didn’t want to spend all 10 days in La Paz, I made a short stop in Cochabomba, Bolivia’s fourth largest city, kind of on the way to La Paz. I took a night bus to get there, and like most Bolivian night buses, it got in at the convenient time of 4:30 AM. Luckily, the nice staff at Running Chasky woke up and let me hang out in the common area until the room was ready. After a quick nap, I woke up and met Angels and Peter (blog here), who turned into my mini crew for the next few days to explore the city. The highlight here was the hike up to the statue of Cristo de la Concordia which overlooks the city. It’s the tallest Christ statue in the world, just a few meters taller than the one in Rio after which it is modeled.  

La Paz

The next morning, Saturday, Peter and I hopped on a bus to La Paz, our home for the next week. I had heard a lot about the Wild Rover hostel in La Paz so we went straight there, and booked in a 20-bed dorm room, the biggest I’d slept in to date. Typically, the more beds in a room, the cheaper it is, and this was no exception, at $7/night. I wanted to be sure I was in La Paz by Sunday, which is when they have their weekly Cholitas Wrestling event. Cholitas are Bolivian women who dress in traditional garb (sweaters, long skirts, and a Charley Chaplin top hat), a tradition that is passed down from mother to daughter. And every weekend, you can watch these ladies come out, show off their best moves, and body slam each other for a few hours. We showed up and we’re given a ticket for entry, with vouchers for a free snack (popcorn), beverage (3 swigs of coke), souvenir (a mini Cholita doll), and two bathroom trips. Yea…if you had to go more than twice, you better start bartering your toy for an extra ticket. I hadn’t attended a wrestling event in almost 20 years, but it was a blast. They had 4 or 5 matches, each with an eerily similar storyline of good gal/bad gal, with an evil referee thrown into the mix as well. Definitely a worthwhile stop if you’re in La Paz at the right time of the week.

On Wednesday, I went mountain biking down Yungas Road, better known as Death Road. The voyage started with a 7:15 AM hostel pickup to drive the hour or so up to the top of the mountain. The first 45 minutes were on paved road, which was good, because I pondered for a while and couldn’t remember the last time I had ridden a bicycle. After that stretch, we veer off onto the dirt road and for the next two hours, road down the true death road, that weaved down on the side of the mountain, overlooking a picturesque green valley. The ride is only as scary as you want it to be. Ride with a company with decent bikes (and brakes), and you can control how fast you go and how close you are to the edge. They did have an incident the day before I went where one of the trail drivers (the van that follows behind the bikes with everyone’s stuff) got startled by a biker swerving in front of him and the van fell off the road to the valley below, killing the driver inside. Passing by the accident site as we rode down was a sobering reminder to not screw around and be fully aware of your surroundings. Aside from that tragedy, it was an incredible few hours – a combination of adrenaline and beauty that you don’t get to experience every day. And lucky for us, due to a mudslide, our trail van couldn’t pass a certain point until they cleared the road. This meant we got “bonus time” on the bike, or the last 20 minutes riding uphill on a road shared with everyday traffic. In a week that different feature a ton of strenuous physical activity, it was probably good for me.

La Paz is home to the San Pedro prison, famous in South America and the subject of the book Marching Powder. Originally designed to house around 600 prisoners, it currently holds over 2,000 inmates and their families. Yes, here, there aren’t any cells and few prison guards, and the prisoners can have their families including children live with them inside. An ex-prisoner, an American named Crazy Dave, gathers at the square every day to tell stories of his 14 years inside the beacon of drug trafficking and corruption. Certainly eccentric and possibly insane, Dave had some wild tales of his time locked up. Until a few years ago, they even used to offer tours to visiting tourists, until a reporter uncovered that young travelers would go for the weekend and turn it into a weekend coke binge…with the drugs produced at one of several labs inside. Just hearing of a prison system like this continues to underscore that Bolivia is as far from the US as anywhere I’ve been so far.

Now I knew that Wild Rover was known as a party hostel, but didn’t really have the full understanding until I got there. Our first night was Saturday so I thought maybe the multiple happy hours and bartenders standing on the bar yelling ‘FREE SHOTS’ was just a weekend thing. Nope. After more or less a repeat performance on Sunday night, I realized they played for keeps there. I also admitted that if I wanted to get a decent night sleep, I needed to get out of the 20-bed dorm (which also for some reason had a massive skylight in the middle for a nice, natural, 7 AM alarm clock) and into something a bit more normal. Not that it made us celebrate life any less – two other patriots and I still took home the ‘Drink for Your Country’ title on a Tuesday, and gave a stunning rendition of Jumper by Third Eye Blind on Karaoke Thursday, but at least I had a decent place to escape to when necessary.

When I arrived, my plan was probably to leave for the rainforest on Friday, but I arrived to discover Wild Rover was an Irish-owned hostel and Friday was St. Patrick’s Day. They had a full weekend of events planned, and I didn’t have that much time (or liver capacity), but I wanted to see it on the big day. The place was filled with Irish travelers (they stayed for free on SPD) so I felt like I was celebrating in Dublin South. They led a parade during the day accompanied by a Bolivian marching band and accordion player (no idea how you even find an accordion player in Bolivia), and yelled out Irish drinking songs that I tried to learn but mostly clapped along. I would’ve loved to know what was going through the locals’ heads as they watched a bunch of gringos march through the city. All we were missing was Guinness on tap (they had Baby Guinness shots which sufficed). It was a good way to cap off a week of pretending like I was still in college and my body was made for this type of thing, but I was more than content to pack my bags and hit the road. Next stop was to fly up to Rurrenabaque, the access point to the Bolivian rainforest. And of course, my cab ride to the airport had to be eventful in true La Paz fashion. There was construction on the way and I guess my driver was just trying to make good time (which I appreciated), but at one point he swerved into the construction lane to pass a few cars, and apparently cut off a motorcycle attempting to do the same. He slammed on his brakes and laid on the horn, and while passing him on the left, managed to kick off the side mirror of my cab. It was at this point I was praying my driver wouldn’t retaliate (and I’m not sure he didn’t want to), but the bike sped away. I had fun in La Paz but this confirmed it was time for me to get the hell out of there. On to the rainforest!

Bolivia, Part I

Bolivia, Part I

Tupiza

Last time I left I was walking into Bolivia, finally legal, and on my way to Tupiza. My initial plan was just to use this as an overnight sleeping spot before heading to Uyuni in the morning. But the way the transportation worked out, I ended up having a full day before I needed to catch the train. I took this time to ride my first ever horse. It’s weird to think I rode a donkey (as part of our annual donkey polo tournament in college) several times before I rode a horse, but it was time to change that. And like most other things in Bolivia, it was cheap (~$9/hour). I booked through my hostel, Hostel Butch Cassidy (highly recommended, great breakfast spread, including pancakes) and it ended up being just me and the guide and we went on a 3-hour journey through the canyons and valleys of Tupiza. She gave me an authentic sombrero to wear, but she didn’t account for the impressive size of my head, so it was flying in the wind most of the time. Me and my horse, ole Cara Blanca (white face), were a work in progress. She didn’t seem too upset to see me go, and I respect her more for it. Classic hard-to-get.

I went into town to grab lunch and wait for the train station ticket office to open, so I passed some time by people watching in the main plaza. Carnaval was still ongoing, and the little kids were the main stars on this day. And these 6/7/8-year-old boys were complete savages. They were armed with the same foam cans that I had in Tilcara, yet they seemed to use them much more like a weapon than I. They would wait until the innocent girls were about a foot away, then spray them straight in the face and eyes. The better part was the parents on the sidelines cheering them on. I was cracking up. When I had enough fun, I went to go get my train ticket for later that evening. There’s three options to choose from: executive, salon, and popular. They all were reasonably priced (especially from what I’m used to paying in Argentina and Chile), so I decided I’d go with the best seat they had to offer. Yet when I got to the front, the man informed me all they had left was popular, so I accepted without much of a choice, and pleased that I’d be able to take a 6-hour train ride for about $2.50. I’m not sure why that price didn’t cause me more alarm, but it very much should have. What transpired next was by far my worst transportation experience to date.

I load my bigger pack into the luggage hull and take my carry on into the popular cart to find my row and seat. Instead what I find is numbered 3-person benches facing each other. By the time the train departed 20 minutes later, our 6-person area had 5 adults and 3 kids. 15 minutes into the ride, a smelly drunk walks up, starts flirting with one of the ladies, and decides he’ll sit with us as well. Now we’re at 9 people. This cute little five-year-old kid is sitting in the legroom between the two benches, using my leg as a pillow. I couldn’t really be bothered by this – he was a cute kid and it wasn’t his fault we were in this situation. Then they pass him the 2-liter bottle of juice to pour himself a glass. Whyyyy? Of course, he spills some on me. He shoots me an apologetic look and I am quick to tell him it’s ok and forgive. But he does it again. Okay, that’s enough juice kid. Obviously with the current seating situation, any sort of iPad or laptop entertainment is out of the question, so I just try to close my eyes and sleep. A few times I wake up and look outside to see we’re not moving, but figure we’re just waiting for stations to clear. I find out later that we were waiting for them to clear the landslide over the tracks, and we didn’t move for three hours. When we stopped at a station around 1:45 AM (only 15 minutes from our original ETA), I optimistically got up and grabbed my bag. I asked a passing passenger if we were at the Uyuni station and she laughed. No, you have a long way to go. At this time, the gaggle of kids had left, but their seats had been easily filled with more Bolivians. One of them had a pretty strong funk but I couldn’t identify the guilty party. Though at this point, I was far past caring. Three restless hours later, we get to Uyuni a little after 5 and it’s time for me to find my hostel. Never will I step foot on a Bolivian train again.

Uyuni

The main (and really, the only) reason to come to Uyuni is to explore Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat at over 4,000 square miles. There are a few tour options, but I opted for the one day tour of the flats that returns you to Uyuni the same day. The town of Uyuni itself is tiny, and built almost entirely for tourism, which means overpriced, average restaurants, and not much else to do. The one day tour allowed me to see the main attraction, and still get back in time for the bus to Potosi that same night. First, we went to an old train graveyard, where trains brought by the British during early mining operations lie resting in peace. They were abandoned there in the 1940s when the mining industry went south. Interesting to see but I was ready to see the main draw. We arrived to the entrance to the salt flats around an hour later, and put on our boots like true salt flat explorers. Formed by the evaporation of prehistoric saltwater lakes, the flat contains a few meters of salt crust. When dry, it’s salt as far as the eye can see. But perhaps the coolest feature is when the area gets rain, the flat floods with a few inches of water, and turns into the world’s largest mirror. The combination of complete flatness and lack of surroundings makes the horizon disappear. It also has the wonderful effect of making you feel extremely small. Don’t get me wrong, I got some cool pictures, including the one featured in this blog, but I enjoyed just sitting in admiration even more. The original plan was to stay for sunset, but a storm rolled in and we decided to head back instead of try to wait it out, which was fine by me. It guaranteed that I’d get back in time to reach my bus (not train, never again) and we had more than enough time to take pictures.

Potosi

I arrived into Potosi late that evening and checked into Casa Blanca Hostel without issue. The next day I used to relax a bit, but as I was thinking about dinner, I found out it was the hostel owner’s birthday, and they were making homemade pizzas if I wanted in. All I had to grab was something to drink. It turned into a classic great hostel night, where a bunch of people, who have nothing in common other than the location of their bunk beds, come together and share in tons of beer, wine, and laughter. We had fun, and it’s safe to say I slept through breakfast the next day. I finally dragged myself out of bed, and that following afternoon, I went on a tour of the mines of Cerro Rico. We went to get geared up with coveralls, boots, and a headlamp, then went to the miner’s store to buy gifts for the miners, which consisted of coca leaves, juice, grain alcohol, and dynamite. It was troubling that you could buy a stick of dynamite for under $3, but my inner masculine desire to see stuff blow up won, and that’s what I bought. We get to the entrance to the mine, turn our headlamps on, and get in to start exploring. Over the next hour, we climbed unstable ladders, tried to avoid breathing in too much silica, and helped some miners haul rocks to the exit. It’s pretty hard to explain how I felt about the mine tour. It was a unique experience and really cool to see it first hand, but at the same time it was eye-opening and sad. We ran into a 15-year-old kid in the mine, who had been working for three years. And the only reason he was working in the mine was to help his dad, who had developed lung disease from his 30 years in the mine. It’s a vicious cycle in a town without much other work. And our guide seemed to be encouraged that only 12 people died in the mines last year. Overall, I was glad I went but it certainly made you appreciative of the opportunities we are provided as Americans.

Sucre

The next day I was off to Sucre, and I used yet another different type of transportation, a shared taxi. For a three-hour taxi ride, it worked out to $7 per person, so I decided to ride in comfort through the winding Bolivian hillswith three strangers instead of on a bus with 40 strangers. My four days in Sucre were relatively uneventful. It’s the constitutional capital of Bolivia, but most government business is conducted in La Paz, and Sucre is a much more laid back colonial city. I met up with some friends from Potosi my first night there, and woke up the next day sick, which curbed most of my appetite to get out into big excursions. One thing I was finally able to accomplish was getting my yellow fever vaccination. When I went to the travel doctor in the states, she surprisingly told me it would be much cheaper abroad, and it’s still the same vaccine all over the world. And since I plan to enter the rainforest in just over a week, I was running out of time if I wanted to be adequately protected. It took a silly amount of time due to typical South American bureaucracy, but $14 and a few hours later, I was immunized without any real side effects.