Twenty-Eight Hours Later
After a few days lazing in the leafy courtyard of our hostel, amused by the toucan antics, and working our way around a variety of restaurants near the main plaza, we rocked up at the bimodal bus and train terminal of Santa Cruz, ready to take a fancy train we had been recommended. Of course, despite internet, guidebook and any-means-possible research, the train’s departure times had been readjusted, so we missed it by twenty minutes, and seeing as it runs every two days, we were not going to wait around for the next one. We sat on the pile of our bags in the terminal and decided our best course of action. We were aiming to travel what is known as the Jesuit Missions Circuit, several small towns in the region of Chiquitanía with beautiful and interesting church complexes from the 18th Century. We decided to go for a bus, so late that night, after several hours on the worst roads so far (think travelling at less than thirty on intercity roads, just so the bus didn’t fall off the narrow, potholed road) we rocked up in the small town of San José. We each balanced precariously on the back of a moto-taxi with our large rucksacks, for the short ride to the main plaza and a cheap hotel.
Several times during the night we were violently woken by the thunder of the loudest storm I have ever experienced, lightening tearing the sky so frequently that there were near constant flashes in our room, the rain hammering down for hours. By early morning, the storm had worn itself out, and we settled down for a lovely lie-in to compensate. Promptedly, a parade began marching past, and by parade I mean trumpets blaring, drums pounding, the full works, so we gave up on sleep and stepped into the main plaza to find out what was going on. It was teeming with hundreds of people. Several army officials, as well as the beauty queen of the town wearing a San José sash, were stood to one side clapping the various students of the town’s schools, who marched past in their neat uniforms. Remnants of the native culture of the Chiquitano people were evident such as masked figures, wearing bright cloaks and bunches of dried berries below their knees so that they jangled as they moved, dancing though the parade, alongside figures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
It took a few minutes to twig that it was Mayday, which meant that besides getting to witness the festivities, we also saw the famous Jesuit Mission church in use, as a service was in full swing. It was a stunning sandy-coloured stone church, with a large courtyard off to one side, the rooms bordering the courtyard decorated with stylised images of saints, fruit, food, and conquistadors.
Our subsequent on-site research revealed that there was only one bus out of the town going on to our next stop, and that was going to turn up at either 1am, 6am, or both, or neither, partly due to the festival, but also because gringoes tend to do the circuit in tour groups; indeed, we were the sole gringoes in the town.
We didn’t fancy our chances sitting on the side of the dirt road, waiting for a potentially no-show bus, especially considering the possibility of another dramatic thunderstorm, so remaining flexible as ever, we readjusted our plans. We decided to return to Santa Cruz for the night, and to make up for the incomplete circuit, visit an extra town afterwards before continuing the route we’d decided. We managed to arrange a micro back to Santa Cruz, a family complete with three children and a pet rabbit on a lead crammed into the seats behind us, and the driver rubbing a suspicious white powdery substance onto his gums as we drove along.
So only twenty-eight hours after we’d set out, and each £12 poorer, we were back in the hammocks of the Santa Cruz hostel with the toucans hopping around us once again.
The One that Wouldn’t Have Been
The next morning we had another micro journey, this time through stunning mountainous landscape, the craggy rocks covered in rainforest, mist drifting through the peaks, until we reached the town of Samaipata, our extra stop-off.
Our hostel was the most beautiful we have stayed in so far, with a large garden sloping down the hill with bright flowers, hammocks and stunning views across the valley, a restaurant attached with an amazing variety of food and airy, comfortable rooms. This last minute change in our plans became known as the Holiday from our Holiday, and we threw ourselves into it with gusto, lounging for hours in the hammocks, slowly circling the many great restaurants in town, and making full use of the Happy Hour.
We took the opportunity to explore the surrounding landscape, with a series of day tours which were run for only the two of us, so we had the luxury, and unusual experience, of a personal guide.
The first was a hike through the Amboró National Park, with Rolando pointing out various medicinal plants as we climbed through the forest. We passed many giant ferns, which have only been found in five countries in the world, and which grow at a rate of two centimetres every ten years, so we were gazing at specimens more than a thousand years old. After several hours we came out on level with the canopy, the rainforested peaks around us covered in cloud.
We also visited El Fuerte, a religious and administrative ruin which spans Chané, Inca and Spanish influence. Due to lichen and human damage, all that remains is a large sandstone slab, carved here and there, but with enough detail remaining that the set up and uses have been theorised. Before we left, on Rolando’s instruction, we sat on a section of sandstone near the ruins, our hands on the stone and our eyes closed, to connect with its energy and tranquillity.
The final day out on the holiday from our holiday was an arduous hike to a renowned condor watching spot. The majority of the way there was an incredibly steep climb, the reward being the fact that we managed it easier than the other two groups of the day and were therefore pronounced to be ‘athletic’. When we reached the top, our entire surroundings were shrouded in mist, which drifted away every now and then to reveal other peaks nearby, but ensured that the most we saw of any condor was the black speck I accidentally snapped in the middle of a photograph.
All too soon our ‘holiday’ was over, and once we’d taken a micro back to Santa Cruz, and waited in the bimodal terminal for several hours, where we seem to be spending a little too much time recently, we took an overnight bus to the rainforest city of Trinidad.
Off the Gringo Path
As is to be expected in the middle of the rainforest, Trinidad is extremely hot, and even the simple task of eating lunch in an air-conned restaurant left us dripping with sweat.
Our main task on the day we arrived was to try and find out anything possible about taking a slow boat up the Rio Mamoré, so infrequently done by tourists that setting it up is a task in itself. We were directed towards a certain port, and balanced together on the back of a moto-taxi for the half hour drive out of the city, through the tropical wetland countryside. Upon arriving, the port turned out to be four or five very weather beaten wooden boats moored up next to a small village of stilted houses, with chickens, pigs and children roaming the mud of the roads, and blue and yellow macaws squawking in the palm trees. After wandering for quite a while and then chatting with one local fixing his boat, we found out our advice had been wrong (a mark of how unusual this boat ride is: even the city locals don’t even know the right port to go to) and hitchhiked a lift back into the city on two mopeds, and took another moto-taxi out of the city in another direction, to the correct port. This was only slightly more port-like than the previous, with perhaps fifteen slightly larger, wooden, cargo boats in total. We chatted with various crew members and gathered that on the day we wanted to leave we should turn up and negotiate.
The next day we were driven to a farm just outside the city, and from there spent several hours horse riding through sections of the tropical wetland which would not be passable on foot, at one point wading through water up to our feet in the stirrups. All the while we were surrounded by various species of birds, taking off in flocks or lone figures stood in the tops of trees.
Today we are setting out for the ‘port’ to try and negotiate a lift up the river into the heart of the Amazonian rainforest, having already secured ourselves colourful hammocks and mosquito nets from the local market.