The End of an Era

Death’s Forty Kilometres

As soon as the airstrip in the rainforest town of Rurrenabaque allowed, we boarded the mini, sellotaped plane, for a short, but very turbulent flight through a snowcapped mountain range and into the sprawling, crowded city of La Paz.

Our visit began with an excellent free walking tour of La Paz, starting next to San Pedro, the minimum security prison in the centre of La Paz. Seeing as Bolivian justice is governed by ‘preventative captivity’, 85% of the inmates are awaiting trial, though it doesn’t seem a tough life. The prison is manned by very few guards because the inmates run it based on their own code of conduct, the woman and children can go in and out as they please, Coca-Cola has paid for exclusivity inside, and cells are sold like real estate, ranging up to apartment blocks which the guards allow the inmates to fully furnish with their possessions from outside.

We wandered through various squares, past the Presidential Palace and through the large markets which La Paz is so famous for, from the fruit and veg section, dominated by potatoes (400 varieties grow in the La Paz area alone), to the stalls piled high with stacks of multi-coloured llama and alpaca wool clothing. Most were manned by local indigenous woman, wearing shawls and skirts, and balancing bowler hats on their carefully plaited hair, and we were informed of how flirtation works in the Aymara community: when a woman really likes a man, she plays with her plaits to attract his attention, then if successful, lifts up her long skirt a miniscule amount, just enough to reveal her ‘big juicy calf’, as our tour guides phrased it; everything depends on the sturdiness of an Aymaran woman’s calf.

The tour ended on the seventeenth floor of a five-star hotel, which offered fantastic views across the city and facilitated our next adventure: Urban Rush, abseiling face first partway down the building then freefalling the remaining height. It is one of the only activities which has ever made me feel slightly nervous, as we had to feed the rope through our hands ourselves as we slowly walked vertically down the wall of the skyscraper, though there was, of course, a back-up line (before you start worrying, mum!).

The highlight of our La Paz visit was, without a doubt, our day spent cycling Death Road. We were driven out of the city until we were at 4700m and short of breath from the altitude, and once shown our bikes and their uber sensitive brakes, we had 25km of tarmacked road, looping and snaking down the mountainside, to practise and get used to the bikes, accompanied by utterly stunning views.

Once our practice was over, we began in earnest on Death Road, 40km of rough, bumpy road, sometimes as narrow as three metres, and with sharp drops up to six hundred and fifty metres, all the while downhill at such an incline that braking without skidding was near impossible. It was a challenge but an exhiliarating and exciting one. The comic entertainment of the day was provided by Nae’s very slow pace, which made for excellent footage and many laughs as our group sat watching in the restaurant at the bottom of the road with beers in our hands. The highlight was a fall (minimal injuries, I promise) in a shallow river only five minutes from the end when she gave up cycling midway across the water.

 

The Retreat

After a messy night out with new friends made from Death Road and the locals who were our guides, Nae and I moved on to Copacabana, a small town on the shores of Lake Titicaca, from which we took a ferry out to Isla del Sol. We climbed a long set of Inca steps which led to a small village and spent the day sat on a terrace writing our diaries, and looking over the stunning view of the terraced island and vast lake. We were surrounded by such a quietness that, as Nae put it, the only sound was our coke fizzing.

We found a hostel recommended by friends, and booked into a beautiful room with light-coloured wooden floorboards and large windows looking out across the lake, and felt like we were on some sort of retreat, a feeling which was heightened when we realised we had the run of the entire building. So that night, we slept peacefully, the only two inhabitants in a beautiful lofty room, in a huge hostel, on the top of a hill, on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca.

The Other Side

The next day was momentous: after close to two months in Bolivia, we crossed the border into Peru. We made straight for Puno, a large town on the Peruvian shores of Lake Titicaca.

The next couple of days were spent on a tour of some of the Peruvian islands in Lake Titicaca. We began with a boat ride out to the Uros Islands, a group of fifty floating, manmade islands, made by the indigenous people using reeds grown in the lake, a tradition which began when they moved from the mainland to avoid having to work in the mines for the Spanish conquerors. On each reed island, six or seven families live in houses made from reeds, sleeping on reed mattresses, eating the white end of the reeds, using the reeds for fuel for their cooking. The president of the small island we visited demonstrated how they build the islands, mooring huge sections of roots then piling up layers of reeds. She also showed us the variety of incredibly beautiful textiles they make in order to earn money, depicting their way of life, the animals they rever, and Mother Earth, Father Earth and Mother Lake.

In the afternoon we headed to Amantani island, the land all terraced, much like Isla del Sol as the primary income is agricultural produce. There are ten indigenous communities on the island, and not a single restaurant, hostel or souvenir shop. We hiked up to the ruins of a temple to Pacha Tata, Father Earth, to watch the sunset. That night we stayed with Mama Sebastiana and her family, who are part of Comunidad Occopampa, as marked out by the green colour of the skirts which the woman wear. She fed us multiple varieties of potato, then in the evening dressed us in the colourful finery of the local women and took us out to a fiesta the community held in honour of the homestay guests, where we danced and danced, whirling around in large circles to the music of a panpipe band.

The next day, after a slightly teary farewell on the part of Mama Sebastiana, we moved on to another large natural island called Taquile, and hiked up to the main square and a restaurant there. Our guide and a local explained the traditional clothes worn by the 2500 inhabitants of the island; each man is marked out as single, engaged, married or part of the authorities of the island by the colour and style of the hat and woven belt he wears; each woman is marked out as single or married by the way in which she wears her black shawl and positions the colourful pompoms, affixed to each corner of the shawl, about her body. The local, and evidently married man from the red of his hat and belt, demonstrated grinding up the leaves of a plant which creates a natural shampoo and detergent so excellent and strong that not a single inhabitant is bald or loses the black colour of their hair.

After lunch, we headed back across the lake to the mainland, and overnight took a bus to Cusco, the town which serves as the basecamp for Machu Picchu. We have so far spent two relaxing days touring the local restaurants, getting massages, wandering the cobbled streets and recuperating a bit, enjoying another mini holiday from our holiday. It’s a tough life we lead.

The Rainforest Presents: The Trials and Tribulation of Two Gringoes

Beds of Pasta

It’s been quite a while since my last update; we have been, and still are, in the middle of the rainforest region of Bolivia, and it’s been a very interesting and varied couple of weeks, with more than a few anecdotes to relate.

I left off last time just as we were preparing to visit the ‘port’ and try and secure a boat passage out of the rainforest city of Trinidad. At the port, we met the sunbeaten and friendly Don Soilo, el capitán of the motor boat Don Angel, who told us his boat, cargo and crew left in four days, and that we were welcome to string up our hammocks on deck for the journey. We held a thirty second decision making meeting and decided to accept the offer, which meant we had three days for another adventure in the meantime.

We decided to visit the small town of San Ignacio de Moxos, known for its distinctive local culture due to the influence of the native Moxos people, and a five hour journey along the notoriously worst road in the country, including a short micro ride, three hour river crossing in a boat, and another micro to pick us up on the other side. The initial micro ride presented no problems, and we arrived at the riverside and waited in the searing heat of the day inexplicably for two hours, until something unseen and unbeknownst to us changed and we were gestured onto a small, wooden cargo boat. We set off, enjoying the stunning views across the wide river as the sun slowly sank, and after a while, followed a narrow passage almost hidden by water plants, and promptly got lost. In an attempt to get back on course, we ploughed through the water plants, so that it looked like we were floating in the middle of a field. We inevitably got stuck, and spent a good hour slowly inching forwards, while Nae and I amused ourselves goggling at the insect life living on the leaves around us, then once free and back to a main waterway, spun in circles for a while until the boat was free of all leaves and could continue. The motor, however, was not happy and continually broke down. The sun had set by this point, so one of the men took a torch to the front to direct the boat through what looked like a submerged forest, and we endured more than a few head-on collisions with the trunks of large trees. Shortly after we had emerged from the forest section, the motor broke down completely and the passengers, the two of us and an elderly lady, waited on the banks for nearly two hours as the cargo was unloaded, the boat fixed, then reloaded again. Once back on board and on our way again, we all fell asleep on piles of large white sacking, which we later found out contained packets of pasta, and at some point in the night we came to a complete standstill, broken down for good.

We awoke the next morning in a narrow waterway, about one hundred metres from our final destination — the dirt road— but stuck in the river. A small canoe with a motor came to rescue us and a mere hour later we were moving once again.

Once on land, and with no vehicles in sight, we waited on the roadside for another couple of hours, until a micro turned up, and the ninety minute last leg of the journey went relatively smoothly, with the micro only breaking down twice. Twenty-three long hours after we left, we arrived in the town of San Ignacio, shaking from hunger having eaten only one meal in nearly forty-eight hours, with painful backs from our pasta mattresses. We ate, bought an obscene amount of snacks, and headed straight for bed.

In case such an incident happened on the way back, we had to leave the next day, so spent the evening wandering the town a bit, admiring its beautiful Jesuit Mission church and shaded, geometric main square, and not at all focussing on the fact that we spent roughly six hours awake in the town, as compared to the twenty-three to get there. The return journey the next day went a lot smoother, taking only seven hours.

Living, Not Leaving, on the River

Once back in Trinidad, we spent the morning before our boat’s departure buying snacks to last us five days’ worth of food, as our passage didn’t include meals, and a large, plastic, Toy Story bag to carry them in. A taxi dropped us, our food, and our rucksacks at the port in the afternoon, and we spent a while hauling everything on board. The seven-year-old girl and eight-year-old boy, who live and work on board, gave us a tour of the motor boat and the five cargo floats attached (three of which were exclusively loaded with crates of a local beer), then took us out fishing in the small canoe. We set up our hammocks and mosquito nets on a covered section of the second deck, and settled down to enjoy our relaxing journey up the river.

Five days later we still hadn’t left. Not all of the cargo had turned up, and each day the captain came to speak to us, until Nae became sick of the word ‘mañana’ (tomorrow). Bolivia being an excessively inefficient country, we just waited and enjoyed living with the locals, particularly getting to know the two kids and their grandmother who was the sole woman on board, cooking for the crew of five men in a small kitchen attached to the back of one of the cargo floats, which came complete with a sink, old fashioned fire oven and wooden dining table. However, after five days, and being told once again that the departure was being pushed back another, we held another, much longer, decision making meeting and decided to get off the boat, slightly worried about our timing and visas what with a few more stop offs in Bolivia planned. A very interesting few days, and a shame we didn’t get to experience the boat actually moving more than the few metres back and forth as it rearranged the cargo floats, but definitely the right decision for us.

The High Life

The next day we boarded a tiny, rickety plane with its nose patched up with sellotape, not being able to face the worst road in the country again for the far longer journey to the rainforest town of Rurrenabaque. There were nineteen passengers in total, one on each side of the aisle, and a view into the pilot’s cockpit. The short flight offered stunning views over the rainforest and waterways snaking through. On our flight, we met an incredibly interesting American named Mike, who is in the process of setting up a social business project to run tours in the area, which will highlight and educate about the effect of deforestation, working with the Bolivian Amazon Land Trust Alliance to buy areas of land in order that it remains protected. Upon arriving at the earthy airstrip in Rurrenabaque, we balanced all our rucksacks and selves onto the back of two moto-taxis and rode into town, got a room together in a hostel, then Mike gave us a short tour around the small town centre.

The next morning, Nae and I climbed aboard a small motorised canoe, and two guides took us a short way up the river, then on a walk through the rainforest, slowly climbing uphill. Once we were high above the river, we put on harnesses, helmets and a strange leather sort of glove thing on one hand and began our descent using eight ziplines criss-crossing between the very tallest of trees over the canopy for about one kilometre. It was exhilarating to zoom over the forest so high up, gazing down through the trees, even if I did manage to get stuck on one line a fair distance from the end platform and have to haul myself along slowly.

Survival

The final, and most challenging, of our recent experiences, came in the form of the jungle tour we set off on the following day. It began with a two hour boat ride into the protected Park Madidi, where the main camp was located on the bank of the wide, muddy river. The first afternoon and following morning we did long walks with our indigenous guide, Marco, tracking a group of grunting forest pigs, including a very squealy young one, and learning about the incredible uses of the plants and trees, from anti-malarial and anti-insect properties, to creating leafy backpacks to carry items, to highly toxic poison put on the tips of arrows to hunt animals.

After lunch of our second day in the jungle, it all changed. We started our survivor tour, which meant that we left all our items at base camp aside from mosquito nets, a bottle of water and a headtorch, and set off in essentially underwear to survive in the jungle for three days, finding our own food and shelter. Our arms and faces were tattooed with the dark blue pigment of a local fruit, we were made crowns of plaited leaves, and one cheek was stuffed with coca leaves to slowly suck, which stave off hunger, tiredness and the cold.

We began with a long walk to a river beach, where we fished for several hours until it got dark and then made a fire amid the pebbles. Marco ran a ceremony for Pacha Mama, Mother Earth, to ask for protection in the form of necklaces made from forest materials which the Tacana men wear when they set off into the rainforest alone for three months at the age of 10 or 11. He sang and offered Pacha Mama coca leaves, cigarettes and a special whiskey, whilst the two of us danced around the fire in our underwear waving around the necklaces, having convinced him that it was not necessary to strip topless. We were asked to sing a song from our country as an offering, and under the sudden pressure of finding something we both knew the words to, haltingly sung a particularly beautiful rendition of ’There’s a Hole in My Bucket’. We strung up our mosquito nets between a simple structure we made of branches on a sandy section of the beach, and endured a chilly night.

The next morning, shortly after daybreak and a quick river wash for me, it began tipping it down, so we ran for it, wading across the river with our items and into the forest. Marco led us to a tiny structure made of branches and leaves to get out of the relentless rain, and a few minutes later another survivor, Matt, and his guide ran in and joined us there too. We scarpered very promptly when the large branches of a nearby tree came crashing down on the structure, so we ran with the two guides to the ruins of an old Tacana house made of bamboo, wood and a roof of thatched leaves, which had belonged to Marco’s grandmother. The entire of that second survival day was given over to the pounding downpour. The guides started a fire, around which we slowly dried, and wrapped in our mosquito nets and sheets of the soft bark of a certain tree for warmth, we endured the night curled in a communal spoon around the fire. Morning brought no break in the weather, so after a few hours of daylight, we ran for base camp and got back in time to eat lunch, our first proper meal, pack up and get on the boat back, our faces and arms still tattooed and our bodies now adorned with plaited bandanas, anklets and wooden rings made in the hut by the guides during the rain.

Due to the rain, which has ruined the muddy airstrip in Rurrenabaque, we are waiting for a flight to La Paz in two days, passing the time by sleeping and eating a lot, and receiving a fair amount of amused looks: our faces and arms still stained by the natural tattoos.

 

The Tough Travelling Life

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.

 

A Tale of Three Cities

The Sweetness of Sucre

Our first real experience of the beautiful city of Sucre was a trip to the mirador, or viewpoint, a steep walk up a slope at the edge of the city, where a group of friends we’d picked up and made along the way gathered for sangria and beer to watch the sun go down.

The following few days were very relaxed. We visited the Museum of Liberty, and saw a beautiful old map of the continent, made in Madrid in 1775, with the old borders and Inca Empire marked on it. Seeing as the city is famous for its chocolate, Nae and I took the excuse to sample various hot chocolates and bars. We also visited the central market, aiming straight for the juice section with its counters piled high with fruit, where you could mix any juice you liked, with a free refill, so I went for the oddest combinations possible, such as custard apple and tumbo (no I had no idea what tumbo was either: the translation of banana passionfruit meant equally little).

Easter was a quiet affair; apart from hearing a parade go past at half past six in the morning, just as my dad skyped me from Cyprus, little out of the ordinary happened. In fact, most shops and agencies were open.

A local guide took us trekking, and we enjoyed being out of the city, walking through the valley and forest, to reach a series of waterfalls (bit of an exaggeration: more like a series of quite large trickles), each with a deep, milky blue plunge pool. Along with the locals, we stripped to our swim wear, and jumped in.

On our last morning with Deetz and Carl, we were driven to the edge of the city with a guide, and after a steep climb with a stunning view over the city, came to a 22m rock face, and spent several hours taking it in turns to climb routes of varying difficulty.

Moving On, Luggage and All

After almost a week in Sucre we were restless to move on, so we took an overnight bus to the city of Cochabamba, the journey without incident until we arrived. My Spanish has got to the level that I understood that officials and the bus driver were telling us our large rucksacks were at a different drop off, but not WHY exactly. When another coach driver, a couple of hours later, kindly offered to drop us there, we toured the city dropping off cargo, the only occupants of a now empty coach which smelt distinctly of urine, until the incident descended to further ludicrous levels: we pulled into the ultimate bus terminal with more than 25 coaches of the same company parked up, and a large cargo centre. Half an hour later, a man walked in with our rucksacks on his back, unloaded from another coach. And we will never know what happened.

Amid all the cargo

Amid all the cargo

Our visit to Cochabamba was characterised by Nae becoming very ill with food poisoning. We ate exactly the same meals throughout the previous day, aside from the addition of pieces of chicken in her lunch, so I reckon this is conclusive proof: veggies for the win. I went on an expedition to the pharmacy, and felt very proud that I managed to explain all her symptoms in Spanish (a very difficult task, seeing as vomit is vomitos), and spent my free time wandering the main square, eating delicious street food (after all, posh restaurant food made Nae ill), and trawling the large markets for which the city is famous.

DSC02076

 

Once Nae had recovered sufficiently, and with good coordination on Deetz and Carl’s part so that they crossed over with us, we all coincided for one last day trip together. We took a micro, a tiny minibus, which drove us out of the city and through the mountains, on roads which became increasingly rough, up and up until the clouds drifting through the rainforest were at the same level as us, and the air was muggy and warm. An accident (we don’t think anyone got hurt), provided a good 90 minute break, as vehicles backed up on either side of a turn in the road and hundreds of the vehicles’ occupants gathered for a look, including at least one news crew.

More than four hours after we left Cochabamba, we reached Parque Machia, the animal rehabilitation park in the rainforest where I volunteered four years ago, working with macaws, capuchin and spider monkeys. It was both an exciting and disappointing visit. I set off eagerly to lead the others to the area where we used to feed and interact with the monkeys, but a landslide had cut across the path and evidently destroyed the whole area. We changed our course and climbed the 1km up to the viewpoint, and along the way met one of the mothers I’d worked with, and saw a fair few other members of the pack swinging through the trees. When we came back to the bottom of the park, I went into the office and found out that all members of both the capuchin and spider monkey pack had survived the landslide and moved higher up into the rainforest, but that there was no communal area anymore. An amazing new aviary for the birds has also been constructed, a huge netted dome with a whole habitat inside, and hopefully soon they will be moved in.

Eager to leave the city now associated with being ill, we moved on overnight once again, but this time, based on a very vague memory I had of the bus company’s name from four years ago, we struck lucky: our incredibly cheap journey turned out to be really luxurious, with huge, soft seats which almost fully reclined, right at the front of the top deck so we had a great view the whole journey. We both had the best night’s sleep on a bus so far.

 

Toucan Town

Yesterday we arrived in Santa Cruz, a city I visited four years ago. There’s little to see or do, so I only have two distinct memories: the pet toucan in the hostel we stayed in, and a colourful ice cream parlour on the corner of the main square, where Anna and I used to have diary writing sessions. Within an hour, we had confirmed that both still existed: we checked into the hostel with the toucan — except that there are now two — and while we waited for our beds to be ready, camped out in the ice cream parlour. I have no idea if the older toucan, Manuela, remembers me, but we made friends again quickly, and she felt comfortable enough to annoy us as we ate our food last night and make typing up the blog this morning considerably more challenging.

The Long Road to Sucre

Our Epic Journey

Due to Nae’s time limit, we were keen to reach Bolivia as quickly as possible, so we set off from Buenos Aires very early one morning, on a 24 hour train which would cross the country and bring us closer to the border, and which cost us approximately £2.50. There was, of course, a reason it was costing us about 10p an hour. The carriages were fitted out in the 70s from the look of the laminated wood interior, and the seats were simply benches covered in faux brown leather. The toilets were metal rooms with two footprints on the floor to show you where to squat.

We were the only gringoes, as non-Spanish speakers are affectionately referred to as in South America, in our carriage. Seeing as our Spanish is not very advanced yet, when the train made sudden stops in the middle of the countryside, nowhere near a station, for long stretches of time, we had no clue what was going on. This factor, combined with the excruciatingly slow speed when the train was actually in motion, meant that our 24 hour journey became 30 hours, and we therefore crossed the 1200km distance to the city Tucuman at a rate of 40kmph; often coaches driving on roads parallel to the train kept up with us.

The countryside slowly changed from green ranchland to dustier, reddish expanses peppered with cacti. When we arrived in Tucuman mid-afternoon of the following day, and with less than two hours sporadic and fitful sleep under our belt, we headed straight for the bus terminal and caught the next bus to the border, a much more luxurious, semi-reclining affair, but for the far more princely sum of £17.

We arrived in the border town of La Quiaca just as the sun rose, and once through immigration and across the no man’s land bridge we were in the equivalent town on the other side, Villazón, and finally in Bolivia.

The last stretch was by far the favourite journey of my whole trip so far. We were on a local Bolivian coach for 10 hours, with just as many locals as gringoes, and no air conditioning to ruin my throat. The bright red and blue material of the dusty seats, the yellow curtains and the multi-coloured loomcloth the local women use to carry bundles or babies on their backs merged into my fitful sleep to give me colourful dreams. The landscape was absolutely stunning. We began by going through a mountain pass, with coloured layers in the rock faces which would have driven geologists crazy with excitement. These craggy shapes flattened out into rolling white sand dunes, then into flat, dusty expanses with herds of llamas grazing, some with bright pink tassels affixed to each ear so they were easier to spot, I assume.

Eventually, 60 hours after we left Buenos Aires, after 50 hours of travelling, less than 6 hours of broken sleep and 1945kms covered, we arrived, with backache, painful knees and hip pain, in the town of Uyuni.

Into the White

We spent a day recovering from our long journey, to let the aches subside, catch up on sleep, wander the market and make plans. The next day we then set off on a three day tour into the salt flats and south-west region of Bolivia.

Day 1

We were picked up in a land cruiser by Edwin, our driver, and Huaskar, our guide, and once we had driven out of town found ourselves on the edge of a dessert landscape, fringed in the far distance by mountains. We stopped by what I can only describe as a locomotive playground: huge, rusty steam carriages which had become useless had been left sprawled in the dust beside the still-in-use railway tracks.

We briefly looked around a salt-processing plant, which is a grand way of describing a building made out of salt blocks, inside which a man sat by a gas canister and sealed packets of salt which had been dried out on iron surfaces next to him. As Huaskar said, there may be 10,000 million kilograms of salt on the flats, but they only have rusty tools at their disposal.

The landscape had become pure white from horizon to horizon by now. We stopped in a spot where tourists from various nationalities had pitched flags (no Union flag), then shortly afterwards came to Incahuasi Island. It has been surmised that it was originally an oasis, because a large mountainous ‘island’ rises from the middle of the whiteness surrounding it, covered in sometimes metres-high cacti, which apparently grow at a rate of 1cm per year, so some of the specimens were clearly centuries old. We climbed half an hour to the top for a stunning view, then once back at the bottom had fun messing around taking perspective photos on the flats, including what I shall name The Giant Series.

The sun set as we drove across the salt flats and arrived in our lodgings for the night: a salt hotel, a building constructed, as the name suggests, entirely from blocks of salt.

The Giant Series

Day 2

Our second day began with a long drive until we arrived in a section of sand formations, where Nae and I enjoyed a scenic, outdoor pee on a well chosen ledge, with a view of the volcano nearby which had one, half-hearted plume of smoke rising from its crater.

The rest of the day was spent visiting various Andean lagoons, beginning with a vast one which was blue-black in colour at the edges due to the poo of vicuña, a type of cameloid related to Alpaca, and dotted with flocks of flamingos. Interesting fact: in Quechan, the local language, animals are often named onomatopoeically, so the three species of flamingo present in the area all have different names based on their calls: chururu, jututu and toko toko. Next we stopped by what Huaskar referred to as the ‘stinky lagoon’, with a strong stench of sulphur in the air, and finally Colorado Lagoon, reddish in colour due to the keratin produced by the algae when the sun shone.

Our final stop was a quick one — the sun had almost set and the temperature had dropped dramatically — but one of my favourites. We came to a crater, with bubbling mud pools and steam billowing from the earth.

Our lodgings were more basic on this night, a shelter on the mountainside. The major bonus was a pool constructed from stones around a natural hot spring right next to the shelter, so our tour group spent the evening under the stars enjoying the 40°C heat of the water, which left me glowing from the inside as I fell asleep.

 

Day 3

We drove through the mountainous landscape until we came to a green lagoon, overlooked by the nearly 6000m tall Licancabur Volcano which straddled the border of Bolivia and Chile. After a lunch stop in a local village with suspiciously few men (apparently it was notorious for smuggling cocaine into Chile, so many of the men and boys have been jailed) we came to our last stop, Rock Valley, strewn with beautiful formations, one of which I climbed partway, until I got breathless from the altitude.

The triumph of the day was yet to come, however. On our last leg-stretching stop before we arrived back at Uyuni, the Grand Extraction of Pedro occurred. I should explain: Vicky, an English gringo in our jeep who we had become great friends with over the three days, had been travelling through Belize four weeks previously and some kind of larvae had managed to get into an infected mosquito bite on her arm. Covered with a plaster to deprive it of air, we had seen it pop its head out a few times when the plaster was pulled away and affectionately named it Pedro, and on this last stop Zara, another friend from our jeep, managed to grab it with tweezers and pull it out, barbs and blood-filled body and all. A great end to a spectacular tour.

Pedro!

 

The Highest Town in the World

A short bus ride and we arrived in the town of Potosi, the highest in the world at 4040m. We both thought little of this information until we started noticing symptoms, and I was struck by altitude sickness for the first time ever: headrushes when sitting down, waves of nausea, and almost constant shakiness.

We managed a couple of outings. An ex-miner took us into the mineral mines which Potosi is famous for, and which have been mined since the 16th century. We followed the tunnels and wagon rails deep into the mountain, pausing to chat with miners we met along the way, ranging from the age of 15 to 57, and marvelling at the bright red, blue and green of the minerals and chemical deposits dripping from the tunnel ceilings. We came to a clay figure of one of the miners’ gods, Tios, his hands wide open to accept gifts of tobacco, coca leaves and alcohol, and sporting a gigantic member, held up by empty plastic bottles and, unsurprisingly, symbolising fertility.

We also went on a tour of the first mint in the world: the abundance of silver made Potosi the perfect location for coin production. We were shown the techniques for melting silver with mercury from the Colonial times, as well as various presses; mules-turned, locomotive and electric. The most interesting fact we learnt: because there were various mints across South and Central America, coins made for the Spanish Empire were stamped with the mark of the mint in which they were made. Potosi’s mark was the letters P, T, S and I overlaid, which developed into the dollar sign we now use across the world.

The altitude still affecting us, we gladly left Potosi, and yesterday arrived in the beautiful city of Sucre. In the evening there was a joyous reunion with Deetz and Carl, seeing as it’s already been a month since we parted at the border of Brazil and Argentina, and we enjoyed an evening meal accompanied by ten folklore dances from various regions across the country, complete with colourful, traditional costumes and energetic dancing.

Which brings us full circle to today, a chilling out day, and I shall take the time to apologise: a lack of wifi and the sudden bout of altitude sickness have prevented the blog being updated as soon as I would have liked. But I am feeling much better and looking forward to experiencing the Easter weekend here.