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The rest of Bolivia

all seasons in one day 20 °C
View South America tour on hughw's travel map.

Bolivian Amazon

From Corocio, the end point of the death road bike ride, there was a '12 to 20' hour bus ride north to Rurrenbaque, the departure town for journeys into the Amazon. This ride remains the least pleasant of my whole trip. The bus was crowded and hot, and the windows had to be kept closed or the bus immediately filled with clouds of red-brown dust stirred up from the road. And the road itself was merely the continuation of the death road: i.e. single-lane and with sheer drops to the river below, but now with traffic in both directions! The driver drove on the left so that when he met a truck coming the other way, he could reverse to the nearest passing point to let the other vehicle through, looking out of his window to make sure the tyres were as close as possible to the edge. Looking down into the valley far below, before it got dark I counted several mangled carcasses of buses and lorries half-submerged in the water. And where there might have been springs in my seat, there was a thoughtfully positioned iron bar.

But we made it to Rurrenabaque, on the banks of the Beni river.

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The pampas

There are two different terrains around Rurre: the pampas, a sort of flat marshland covered in grass and scrub teeming with easily-visible wildlife; and the rainforest, with its dense canopy of trees, and noisy and hidden fauna.

First off I visited the pampas: three days cruising around the small tributaries of the Beni, returning each night to a log cabin where we ate tasty meals and shared travelling stories amongst the group of seven of us, and our guide.

On the launch:

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The banks of the river were lined with creatures sunning themselves in the heat of the day. Tortoises:

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Hundreds of alligators:

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And, much to my delight (I'd been wanting to see one the whole trip), the world's largest rodent, capybara. To give you an idea of scale, the large ones weigh more than I do:

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Periodically we'd hear the rustle of a group of squirrel monkeys in the trees at the water's edge:

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At one point a group boarded, looking for food no doubt:

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We also went looking for anacondas, alas unsuccessfully...

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We saw pink freshwater dolphins! I don't have a good photo, since I jumped in to swim with them (after being encouraged by the guide, who assured me it was fine, even though we seemed to be in the same river as the alligators and piranhas...). Here's a little bit of pink dolphin disappearing:

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Sunrise on the third day:

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We went fishing for piranhas. The river was teeming with them, and they were experts at taking the meat from the hook without getting caught. Between us, I caught the only one, and a small nipper at that:

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The rainforest

With a different tour group, I set off from Rurrenabaque up the river Beni to the Amazon jungle.

The early morning boat ride upriver, with the fog clearing, and passing through a steep-sided cleft in the sierra, was reminiscent of that scene in Lord of the Rings...

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I saw a super orange bug:

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And extracted the following tick from my own thigh:

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Our guide, whose name was Lucho (meaning 'fight'), decorated me with bits of forest, not anticipating the Lord of the Flies-esque outcome...

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Back on the road again, I tried to head to the south of Bolivia in a big loop via the east that would avoid me having to take the death road bus again. In the event I ended up spending a whole afternoon at a dusty roadside checkpoint trying to get a lift. An interesting assortment of vehicles went past (none of which had room for me):

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I was joined by a fellow traveller, the wonderful María from Chile, looking for a ride in the same direction. We were assured that should all else fail, there was sure to be the daily bus at 6pm. It did indeed arrive, but the driver regretfully informed us that he'd been specially hired that day to take a shipment of watermelons, and that there was no room for us. After much pleading and re-stacking of watermelons by María, we managed to cram ourselves in. No pisar las sandillas! our driver kept repeating -- 'don't tread on the watermelons'. On the contrary, it was we who were crushed by the fruit.

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Other delights in the Amazonas region

Meat drying in the sun:

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Endless dusty, unpaved roads:

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Plentiful cheap fruit:

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Three sibling parrots as pets:

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Singani, a local liquor suspiciously similar to Peruvian Pisco:

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Tasty baked snacks and coffee:

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Motorbike taxis:

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And other wildlife in a 'refuge':

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Potosí

Just a few days later, I was at the other end of the country, and at another climatic extreme, up in the freezing mountains of south west Bolivia. Supposedly the city of Potosí was once the richest city in the world, due to the silver reserves in the enormous mountain that towers over the town. Thousands of slaves were brought in to extract the silver and other precious minerals. Today the mountain is a swiss cheese of excavations, and the most valuable minerals have all gone. Still, hundreds of miners, working more or less solo, continue to eke out a living on the marginal remains, working in conditions little better than those of medieval times. Bizarrely, there's a thriving industry of tour operators offering guided visits to the mines.

First we stocked up on 'gifts' to take to the miners: soft drinks, coca leaves, and dynamite. Amongst the mining essentials on offer in the store was the miners' favourite 96% alcohol (top right):

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The bottle said 'drinkable alcohol' on it, (just to clarify that it wasn't solely for medicinal use?).

Up at the desolate-feeling mine entrance:

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Going in, bandanna in place to try to filter out the dust of asbestos, arsenic etc.

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The extraction is done mostly with hammer and chisel. The miners have to drag out whatever they can in a sack on their back. There's no infrastructure like lighting or ventilation. Here we are crawling through the mines:

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Claims to particular areas of the mine are usually inherited: we met a father and son team. The son was learning the trade from his father, and was only twelve years old:

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Back on the surface, our guide cheerily prepared a completo: dynamite mixed with ammonium nitrate, with a fuse and blasting cap (a mere 2 pounds from the market stall, which freely sold them to all comers). He lit the fuse and handed it to me:

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Uyuni

Between Bolivia and Chile lies a huge desolate desert, high up in the mountains: a bizarre landscape of salt lakes, rugged multicoloured mountains, plumes of gas venting through cracks in the earth, and vast expanses of sand and rock blasted by freezing winds.

On the edge of the desert is the town of Uyuni itself, a squat settlement bent and stunted by the freezing climate. Starting our three-day jeep tour across the desert to Chile, we visited the train graveyard, a dumping ground for steam locomotives from an age where the mines were more profitable:

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Driving on in our wrecked jeep, we came to a huge salt flat: a salt lake, dry at this time of year, where the salt is extracted and sold by families living in a few desolate huts. Even wearing sunglasses, the eyes were dazzled by the cloudless sky and white surface stretching to the horizon.

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There's a small island in the middle of the lake, featuring 1000-year-old cacti. That little black speck on the salt is a jeep driving on:

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Sunset over the salt flat:

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And sunrise the next morning:

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Amazingly, the desert (if not the salt flat) is far from devoid of life. A few hardy species survive. God knows what they eat -- the tufts of wiry yellow scrub that dot the plain?

An armadillo:

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Vicuñas, a more rare, shy, lean and elegant relative of the llama and alpaca. Apparently their coat has the softest fibres and is the most prized of all:

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The rabbit-like vizcachas:

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And most bizarre of all, happily chomping the slimy weeds that manage to grow in the salt lakes, flamingos:

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Our jeep broke down with increasing frequency: maybe a couple of times the first day, but by the last day, every half hour. Our driver hopped out at regular intervals, brandishing a spanner:

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Stopped for another breakdown:

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In due course we came to a series of rocks, placed in the middle of the desert, seeming to have fallen from the sky. With its long shadows and strange barren forms eroded by sand and wind, the landscape looked like the roadrunner cartoon.

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The third and final day, waking up before dawn in the hut made from salt blocks, the temperature well below zero, we discovered why the experienced jeep drivers had left their engines running overnight. Our driver seemed to be new to the game: he'd switched the engine off, and we ground to a halt after five minutes with steam jetting out of the engine compartment. The radiator had frozen solid.

We six passengers in the back, wrapped in all the clothes and blankets we could find, and still freezing, were rapidly brought to life by the sight of flames leaping from the engine. "Shit get out of the car, it's on fire!"

It turns out the driver was calmly thawing the engine with a burning rag dipped in engine oil:

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We retired to a safe distance. It was still dark. One of our group had food poisoning. I think it's the coldest I've been in my life.

After 2 hours the sun rose.

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Eventually we drove on to the site for breakfast. There were various different groups (i.e. jeep + driver + cook + 6 passengers) along the route, and we met at various sites along the way, including at mealtimes. All the groups do essentially the same tour: the route, vehicles, food etc. are all identical.

Except our group.

We arrived at breakfast at about 10am. The other groups had all been to see sunrise over the laguna verde, and had driven back again. They were enjoying a tasty breakfast of eggs, bread, fruit, yoghurt, muesli etc. Meanwhile in our group, for some reason, we were served a single measly dry bread roll each. And nothing more.

Dan and Willis unimpressed:

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After our visit to the sulphur pools,

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the breakfast mystery deepened: buried at the back of the jeep was a box with all the tasty food we should have had for breakfast. Our driver, aside from being an apparently incompetent mechanic, also seemed to be a compulsive liar. The rest of the group were returning to Uyuni, and only I and a Brasilian guy were to be left at the border to catch a bus into Chile. But we'd arrived late and missed the bus.

Him: There's another bus at 11:30
Me: I don't believe you
Him: No really there is
Me: I think you're lying
Him: I'm not
Me: Promise me you're not lying
Him: I promise I'm not lying

He was lying.

It turns out that a total of six tourists had been abandoned in similar circumstances. Between us we managed to find a mechanic's shop in the middle of the desert, and get him to radio to Chile for a truck. We were saved, eventually.

Goodbye Bolivia:

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After the desert experience, Chile seemed like a kind of Avalon of paved roads, grocery stores, and toilets that flush. And of course, apples. But more on that next time.

Posted by hughw 09:00 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Northern Bolivia

sunny 12 °C
View South America tour on hughw's travel map.

Bolivia! After a ride in a strange sort of pedal-trike-taxi that seemed to be the local speciality in the Peruvian border town, I entered Bolivia. It was the usual south american deal of having to go and rouse an immigration official and get the necessary stamps, rather than the sort of closely-guarded impenetrable border you might expect. I've never had my passport properly checked by anyone. Maybe the locals just don't bother with the immigration formalities.

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Lake Titicaca

My first stop, just a few miles over the border, was Copacabana, a small town on the shores of lake Titicaca.

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Lake Titicaca is endlessly touted as 'the world's highest navigable lake', although I haven't been able to confirm this claim with a navigable lake expert. But certainly the high altitude (3800m/12500ft), surrounding desert landscape, clear white light and thin air combine to give a desolate and thrilling atmosphere.

Sunset over the lake:

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I made the journey to Isla del Sol, an island of a few miles in length, and perhaps the most important religious site for the Incas. According to their beliefs, the very first Incas emerged from the lake one day and kicked the whole thing off.

The boat left us on the shore in the midst of a typical Bolivian scene: a menagerie of pigs, dogs, donkeys, and other animals, roaming the land unattended.

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A view from the island across the lake:

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Back in Copacabana, I took a bus to Bolivia's capital city, La Paz. But not before witnessing the slightly alarming ceremony of blessing road vehicles. It seems in Bolivia more than anywhere else, the safe arrival of your bus is a matter of faith:

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The matter was affirmed within the hour, when we had to disembark from our La Paz-destined bus so it could drive onto a dubious looking raft and cross the narrow passage between the two halves of Lake Titicaca. I'm not sure why we passengers had to get out. Perhaps the barge couldn't take the extra weight. But we were ejected and left to our own devices on the quay in the midst of a chaotic brawl of vehicles, animals, passengers, stallholders and boatmen. I managed to negotiate passage across the strait in a dodgy and overloaded dinghy. On the other side, the other passengers had somehow made it across too, and we boarded the bus and carried on.

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It turned out that most journeys in Bolivia are just as eventful.

La Paz

La Paz is constructed on the edge of a high mountain altiplano, looking like a glacier of red brick houses slowly spilling down the mountainside into the valley bellow. Spread between 3000 and 4000 metres above sea level, it's the world's highest capital city.

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The city centre is overrun with micros, the Bolivian word for the low-cost stop-anywhere minibuses that proliferate the entire continent:

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A central street in La Paz:

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La Paz has many markets, including the mercado negro or 'black market'. Something doesn't quite seem right about a market officially recognised and named as the place to obtain illegal goods. But on visiting the place, the goods didn't seem to be any more counterfeit than those sold in any other shop in the country.

Stallholder in her emplacement (completely surrounded by produce):

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Huge sacks of the puffed cereal snacks that I never once saw anyone eating:

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More bizarre was the nearby witches' market, which sold a vast range of herbal remedies, religious articles (only relating to pre-Christian beliefs), and ingredients for potions, such as llama fetuses:

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On my last day in La Paz, I joined a small group of other tourists in a minibus as we were carried up to El Alto, the neighbourhood on the edge of the plain above the city. As we passed under a hand-painted welcome banner, I noticed a semi-life-sized human effigy being hanged by its neck from a lamp post. Under its feet dangled a sign with the message 'thieves will be lynched'. This seemed to confirm the description of the area I'd been given the day before by another La Paz resident: she said the police don't (dare to?) go there, and that instead the residents administer their own 'traditional' form of justice.

But we'd come there to see cholitas wrestling, which turned out to be a kind of lucha libre with ladies in traditional native dress added to the mix.

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The wrestlers broke out of the ring and continued fighting in the audience. Meanwhile the onlookers were permitted, or even encouraged, to pelt the wrestlers with popcorn, oranges, water etc. if we thought they deserved it.

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Death road

The old road north from La Paz to Coroico earned itself the name camino del muerte, or 'death road', due to the huge number of accidents that happened on its narrow, perilous descent. These days there's a new road, and virtually no traffic on the old one. Thus it seems to have become one of Bolivia's principal tourist attractions, with tens of companies offering a day-long descent of the road on bicycle.

The road traverses a stunning landscape, beginning in a barren and snowy wasteland, and ending 3000m lower in the fringes of the Amazon basin. Here's a view from the start of the descent, at around 5000m:

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The first stage had a tarmac road, which we raced down in single file:

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Here's me, 'death' written down one bicep, 'road' down the other...

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Before long, we'd descended into more temperate climes:

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Here's the group on one of the corners half way down:

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Was the road really that dangerous? Well sure, if you'd ridden straight off the edge you would have plummeted a long way to your doom. But the road wasn't that narrow, and you could choose to ride slowly and keep far from the edge. And the bikes we'd been given were nearly brand new, and had full suspension and disc brakes, and we had a full suit of pads and overalls custom-made for the tour operator -- by far the swankiest transport option in all of Bolivia.

The most dangerous part of the whole thing was the unmarked (as they always were in Bolivia) speed bump right at the end, which seemed to catch unawares a fair proportion of the jubilant tourists hurtling towards the village that marked the trip's end point.

Posted by hughw 07:00 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

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