Our first fortnight exploring Bolivia
29.01.2016 - 12.02.2016
Before we arrived in Bolivia we'd heard a wide variety of opinions - the third world aspects of a country which has limited internet and hot water, as well as the positive aspects: the amazingly cheap cost of travel, the natural beauty, and the undeveloped country.
Our first stop was the original Copacabana (the one in Brazil was named after this one) on the shore of Lake Titikaka. Customs was an absolute breeze and the money changers gave us a better rate than Google suggested for about the third border in a row (are these notes fake? How do these guys make money?). Copacabana was nice, with the shoreline covered in stalls and we had a pleasant afternoon wandering along the waterfront.
We visited the cathedral which managed to impress us - not an easy achievement given the number of cathedrals we have seen at this point in our trip, and climbed a nice lookout where we watched the sunset. The weather was perfect and still where we were but there was a fantastic thunderstorm on the other side of the lake so the sunset was obscured by clouds but we did get to see some great lightning.
The next day we were off early on a boat to the northern end of Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), where according to Inca legends the sun god was born. As soon as we arrived, Peter and Laura had a swim in the freezing lake and then Laura discovered she had left behind her nicely prepared bag of clothes to change into!!! The island had some beautiful scenery and we walked to the southern end of the island during the day. We were pretty exhausted after our day and treated ourselves to a lovely dinner and wine as we sat and enjoyed the sunset once again (this time we saw it sans thunderstorm).
We left the next morning and got a packed ferry back to Copacabana. While the town was nice and pretty, there wasn't a lot to do so we picked up our bags and headed on to La Paz. This bus ride was interesting as we had to cross part of Lake Titicaca. We boarded a passenger ferry while the bus went on a barge. We arrived in La Paz that afternoon which I failed to warm to during our time there. The city was large, dirty, and poor without much atmosphere. The next day was a bit of an admin day, sorting out washing, visiting the witches market (dried baby llamas, anyone?), and of course booking a trip on the infamous Death Road for the next day!!! We did manage to visit the crater of the moon, an interesting landscape which has been formed by erosion.
Death road used to be open to cars and trucks and was the most dangerous road in the world with around 300 people killed annually, although a recent list put skippers canyon as more dangerous. Anyhow, it is all downhill and cycling it had become a major tourist attraction in Bolivia. We got picked up from our hostel just before 7 and met the rest of our group, which consisted of 8 Norwegian girls who had just finished high school - lucky the boys could keep their eyes on the road!!! We drove up to a height of 4,600m and did the first 12ish kms on a normal sealed road. Unfortunately the visibility was terrible and the wind and rain started up. My hands were so numb I started worrying about whether I could brake properly and (confession) couldn't wait for it to be over.
This section took a bit over half an hour and then we were on to the real death road! This was more like it, partly because it was warmer as we had descended almost 1km vertically but also as we had to go a lot slower on the gravel road. The fog cleared after a bit and after defrosting we could finally enjoy the spectacular views and fun bike ride. The ride didn't feel particularly dangerous, as the road can accommodate 1.5ish lanes of traffic along its entire length, but I wouldn't have wanted to drive it in a large vehicle, especially not with oncoming traffic. There was a large landslide from the day before which we had to walk our bikes over which was illustrative of the road quality. We descended a total of over 3,000m and the changing climate was really noticeable.
Instead of returning to La Paz with the rest of the tour group, we stayed at Coroico, as here we were already part way towards the part of the Amazon jungle near the northern Bolivian town of Rurrenabaque. On our day in Coroico we took a look at three waterfalls. The first falls were alongside a fresh landslide. Our taxi driver waited for the stones to stop falling before crossing its path as if nothing had happened. That night Coroico had a town party with brass band, beer and lots of Bolivian dancing.
The next afternoon we experienced what I now think of as the ride of death, the most terrifying ride yet in a Toyota spacio which had been converted to fit an extra 3 people. I used to think that we were veterans of questionable roads and driving after nearly six months traveling in this part of the world but this really was another level up. The road had a cliff upwards on the right side which had collapsed in places (but had been partially cleared) and a vertical drop of about 20m to the river on the left side. The gravel corners in this stretch are so sharp that they change to drive on the left-hand side of the road so the drivers have a better angle to see around corners. The road was full of potholes and occasional waterfalls crossing the road but none of this deterred our rally car driving maniac.
Before we began the death ride, and after we had waited for two hours for the vehicle to leave, we discovered that they were only waiting on one more person. With seats a grand total of about $6 we paid for the last seat so we could finally get going. Our driver seemed to want to make up for lost time. He skidded around about 1/3 of the corners while chewing on coca leaves. The coca leaf chewing is normal but what made me nervous was him looking down to pick out the best ones. After about an hour his screeching around corners caught up with us and we got a flat tire. Just another day at the office, he had it changed in about three minutes on the side of the drop off to the river. The journey took about 2.5 hours which is actually longer than the 2 hours it was supposed to take - I can only think that the roads must be much better during the dry season.
We joined a bus which had come from La Paz and which was continuing overnight into the Amazon jungle. 12 hours" this bus would get us to the northern Bolivian town of Rurrenabaque, not too far from the border with Brazil. The bus there has a terrible reputation as the roads were supposedly similar to those we had just driven - we were grateful that this would be in the dark so we wouldn't see anything!!
Thankfully we had no problems aside from our sleepy confusion when we were told to get off at 4am. It turns out we had arrived 4 hours early!! We sat dozily at the bus station until it was light enough to head to town and made friends with the only other tourist on the bus, Bronte, an Aussie girl who also wanted to do the same jungle tours as us.
The first thing we did was to check into a hostel and sleep for a few hours. Once we had caught up on sleep we booked a 6 day Amazon jungle tour, 3 days camping in the jungle and 3 days of a more leisurely tour of the swamps and lowlands. That afternoon we noticed that the entire town seemed closed and learnt that today was their main town festival! We found everyone wearing their best clothes and enjoying a bull baiting spectacle, which included a number of young men who jumped from the crowd into the ring. We watched a few bulls come out, a couple knocked some of the men over but luckily no one seemed hurt. We didn't stay long as we had to get ready for our 6 day tour and as none of us enjoyed watching it much anyway.
Our tour started with a 3 hour boat ride up a river to get deep into the Amazon and away from civilisation. And so began three days and three nights camping in the jungle with our cook Vicky and our guide Jose. Jose really was 'the man'. He'd grown up in the jungle and his grandfather sent him on a 30 day lone survivor mission when he was 11 to prove he was ready to leave the village.
The first afternoon it bucketed with rain, reminding us we were in the rainforest during rainy season, so we kept our gear at the base camp and hiked to see a local "village" consisting of three families. They all spoke an indigenous language and only one man spoke Spanish. They traded bananas by boating them down the river to Rurrenabaque, and the kids attended a school in the jungle which the government has set up recently. It was a totally different life to anything I could imagine, with the eight family members all sleeping and living under one roof with no walls They were fans of the current president who is indigenous and is the first leader to look after the indigenous people (some 80% of Bolivians). Bolivia are having a national referendum next week to change their constitution again to allow the president to have yet another extra term (he is already in his third and would like to do a fourth). He seems like a popular leader but each term is 5 years so it could be a interesting vote.
The first afternoon it bucketed with rain, reminding us we were in the rainforest during rainy season, so we kept our gear at the base camp and hiked to see a local "village" consisting of three families. They all spoke an indigenous language and only one man spoke Spanish. They traded bananas by boating them down the river to Rurrenabaque, and the kids attended a school in the jungle which the government has set up recently. It was a totally different life to anything I could imagine, with the eight family members all sleeping and living under one roof with no walls They were fans of the current president who is indigenous and is the first leader to look after the indigenous people (some 80% of Bolivians). Bolivia are having a national referendum tomorrow to change their constitution again to allow the president to have yet another extra term (he is already in his third and would like to do a fourth). He seems like a popular leader, especially in the countryside, but in the cities they are generally anti him extending anther 5 years so it could be a interesting vote.
On the second and third days with Jose we went deeper into the jungle, and camped out here on our middle night. Somehow, with just an open fire and simple ingredients, Vicky continued to astound us with incredible cooking - stewed beef with beetroot, beans, fried oregano (a type of non-sweet banana that is everywhere) and rice! Each night we went out on a night walk as many odd the animals are nocturnal so the odds of finding them are better.
We saw a group of a hundred wild boars, and one night we got within 15m of a jaguar but none of us distinguished it from the branches by torchlight except for Jose before it walked away. We saw two types of monkeys, caymans (similar to alligators) a squirrel, birds, crazy huge insects, a billion mosquitoes (which bit us - especially Peter - through our clothes despite putting on repellent UNDER our clothes), and many strange trees (Viagra, paracetamol, poisons, stinky trees, trees with drinkable water inside, trees that live in harmony with parasitic vines or insects, and Tarzan vines for swinging on). We walked for hours each day, and in the evenings we camped under a tarpaulin, swam in the river, helped make a fire, and fished unsuccessfully for piranhas in a tributary to the river about 200m from where we had swum!!!!
After another night at base camp, we returned at dawn on the river to Rurrenabaque for a quick turnaround to start our second 3 day tour. We were joined by five others, but we had requested Jose and Vicky another time.
This "Pampas" tour was far less rugged, and was very relaxed. We were largely on a boat, exploring the rivers and wetlands. Here the animals were obvious and it felt more like a zoo. We saw the differences between alligators, crocodiles and caymans, saw three types of playful monkeys, fished (unsuccessfully) for piranhas, swam twice with the strange pink dolphins of the Amazon, saw many birds including some specialists which could swim underwater for 20 minutes at a time. We also saw some decent sunsets and a sunrise, and explored a marsh looking for anacondas or other snakes. Jose saw a cobra, but didn't manage to keep it in one place for us to see anything more than the grass move. We also played lots of cards and volleyball with our new friends from the Netherlands and Switzerland and learnt a few new games. For the three days we again enjoyed Vicky's cooking and slept at a "lodge" which was a huge step up from the jungle, with four walls and even cold showers which seemed like the ultimate luxury!!!
When we returned to Rurrenabaque we found that the buses couldn't get all the way to La Paz for the moment due to both protests and landslides blocking the road. We walked across the road from the bus station to the airport and discovered that a 40 minute flight left in 2 hours and was about $150 NZ. This was a no-brainer, so we ended up getting a flight in the 19-seater plane. This saves us the minimum 18 hour bus ride, assuming all roads had magically opened by the time we got there.
Seeing the Amazon jungle was a really special experience which I'm really glad we had. It was extremely hot (32-36 degree highs) and there were a LOT of mosquitos but it was definitely a highlight of Bolivia. Plus it was so cheap - we spent under $250 each for the entire six day tour.