Thursday, October 31, 2002

Jungles and Rivers

Boisterous, bellowing hellos from Bolivia!

The road-trip continues...
We left Sucre on a night bus to Saimapata. This meant that we were dropped off on the side of the road at about 4:30 in the morning. No problem! We only had 2 kilometers to walk to our accommodation with 2 bags each, on dirt, rocky streets, in the dark! Saimaipata is a small, primarily agricultural village in the foothills of the Cordillera Oriental. The elevation is much lower than Sucre, yet higher than the steamy nearby Santa Cruz city. This makes it a perfect weekend, highland getaway for rich Bolivians. As soon as the sun started to rise, we were immediately charmed by it's lush beauty. The residents of Saimaipata, which include many European expatriates, are very proud of their little community, and this shows in how well kept their town plaza is, and all of the numerous trash cans (asking people to carefully dispose of their rubbish). We splurged, by backpacker Bolivian rates, and stayed in a beautiful, private, hostal-cabaña, with a fully decked-out kitchen for about $12 a night - La Vispera. This guesthouse is the brainchild of a Dutch couple, who have been living in Bolivia for the last 30 years, self-proclaimed old hippies. They have a beautiful property with dogs and horses, an extremely well-loved herb and vegetable garden, an herbalario (where they sell their own tea blends and packets of medicinal herbal remedies), and a breathtaking view of the green valley of Samaipata.

Still at rest from our stay in Sucre, we cooked fresh meals with the local garden produce, shopped for homemade brown bread, granola and yogurt at a German woman's shop, read old National Geographic magazines in bed, and took peaceful strolls. One day, we ventured out in the light drizzle, with Adriana (a Dutch woman), to visit El Fuerte. This attraction is located 10Km from Samaipata, on a high, misty hilltop, covered by a massive carved boulder, that is believed to be a pre-inca ceremonial site. The true purpose of El Fuerte is still a mystery. Various scholars have believed that it is everything from a fort, a place to wash gold, a temple to the serpent and the jaguar, to a take-off and landing strip for alien spacecraft! After our clueless exploration, we hiked 2 hours back to the village, running into Steph (an Australian girl we had met in Sucre) on the way. At the Hamburg cafe, another gringo hangout, we organized a tour to the Amboro Nacional Park with a few other travelers for the following day. Frank, our German guide took us on a jeepride adventure (allowing us to sit on the rooftop) to the local Cloud forest, full of giant ferns. Our hike was through semi-dense jungle, thanks to the use of Frank's machete, and we saw green snakes (harmless), heard twirping birds and cicada calls, and swung from woody vines like Tarzan. At the end of our day trek, we were treated to lemon grass tea and cheese empanadas at a local Bolivian woman's farm.

Our next brief soujourn was in steamy Santa Cruz, Bolivia's second largest metropolis. The hot weather, and sexily, scantily clad women were reminiscent of Brazil. We took advantage of the range of eateries and had a really good Mexican dinner - ahh yes! However, after only one night trying to sleep in a sweatbox, we zoomed off for our next adventure. Steph and Michaela (a half english, half italian woman) joined us as we headed to Buena Vista, the next port of call, where we were all hoping to see more of the Amboro national Park. We were now on the North side, the Amazon Basin, which was different from the South, more Andean part we had visited outside of Samaipata. Here, we were able to hire tents and organize a 2-day trek with another French couple, and a guide/driver. Our first day consisted of a lot of up-hill hiking through tropical, moist jungle to get a view above the patchwork of broccoli treetops. Along the way, we caught glimpses of monkey tails, and were literally deafened by the buzzing monotonous whirr of insects. At the top, we watched a condor circle above us, as we greedily sipped our last drops of water (Dan and I stupidly expected the other person to have brought sufficient liquid - thankfully, others shared). 3 hours later, we were back at our camp ready to cook. Here, we discovered that we had one pot, 3 spoons and 3 bowls to make a pasta dinner for 6! We managed to improvise extra utensils, and Michaela took over cooking detail and delegated the work to a hungry crew. At bedtime, in the privacy of our tent, Dan and I discovered to our horror that we were hosting small clans of ticks all over our bodies! Bingo! -7 on Sarah's ankle, under her sock, 2 in Dan's hairline, at the back of his neck, 1 in my bra, and another where a man hopes never to find one!

Day 2 and we were armed and prepared with enough insect repellent to choke a condor. We hiked (or rather tripped and stumbled) up a rocky river bed, hopping from boulder to boulder, hoping to keep our shoes dry. After 3 hours of exhausting river crossings, we came to a point where we had no choice but to get knee-deep. We continued for another hour upstream, until we made it to a refreshing pool of water and an invigorating waterfall shower. Our descent was quicker, now that all 6 of us had given up hope of remaining dry - we just tramped through the river. Back to civilization, a warm shower, bottled water, and a meal at Los Franceses, accompanied by mucho cerveza and vino.

Steph joined Dan and I for the 9 hour journey to Cochabamba. Dan and I were going really, really out of our way, just to do some laundry, catch-up on email, maybe mail a few postcards. Our plan was to continue exploring the Chapare region which is inbetween Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, but we knew we would be hitting some small villages that would lack Western conveniences. At this point, backtracking was acceptable in our quest to get clean. Cochabamba is a big city with a terrific climate - warm, sunny days with cool, comfy nights. Sort of like L.A., the weather seemed to be the only good thing that anyone could tell us about this place. Maybe because our expectations had been lowered, we were pleasantly surprised. We stayed at a great guesthouse called Hostal Florida, which had a super friendly, knowledgeable staff, and an inner courtyard full of plants that was the perfect escape from the grime of the city. I suppose there aren't many 'tourist' things to see and do in the city, other than shopping in the colorful markets, or eating in some tasty cafes, but the truth is, that is all we wanted to do. Our stay was very enjoyable. We even managed to catch a flick. However, the highlight had nothing to do with gluttony, and was actually educational. We attended an english speakers presentation on the Coca leaf and its political, economical, and historical context within the Chapare region. Dan is planning on sending an email out about this unique plant that cocaine is derived from, and the U.S. governments involvement in the growth or eradication of the Coca leaf.

The back-tracking began with a 4 hour busride through Parque Nacional Carrasco to Villa Tunari. This is a small village that has made it onto the gringo trail due to the popularity of it's local wildlife park - Inti Wara Yassi. Basically, this is a conservation park that rescues injured animals, former circus or zoo animals, and abandoned or abused 'pets'. Volunteers must commit to a minimum of 2 weeks to take care of the park and its wildlife inhabitants, which include various monkey species, big cats (like pumas and jaguars), and many tropical birds. Dan and I didn't have 2 weeks to spare, but did want the opportunity to interact with some of these animals, so we visited Parque Machia one morning. We're not really sure what to make of the program - the goal seems to be to reintroduce these animals to their native lifestyles, but for the majority, this is an impossibility, and they will always be dependent on humans for their food. The human-animal bond is so strong, that we wondered how it could ever be possible for some of these creatures to truly survive in the wild.

That same afternoon, we finally felt that we had left the thick of the backpacker route, as we took a series of shared taxis to Puerto Villaroel. In 2 hours we took 3 local 'collectivo' taxis to get to our final destination. Hot and sweaty, the drivers managed to fit up to 8 adults and 3 children in one car! Take a minute to think this through...11 people in one car. CAR, not truck, not van, not SUV. At one point, Dan had a grown man half in his lap and half sitting on the gear box. I was in the back seat with 3 other adults and a baby, and another guy was in the hatchback trunk of the car with 2 kids and a couple of bags (our backpacks were tied to the roof). This continued for what seemed forever. We'd drop a family off, only to have a couple of campo farmers hop in and replace them. We drove through tiny settlements with lively markets, barking dogs, kids playing in the street, and cholas carrying their goods in colorful wraps on their backs.

Once in Puerto Villaroel, our plan was to take a 3-day river journey North to Trinidad. There are no official passenger crafts - you have to arrange a fee with the various captains who are carrying their cargo to its next land destination. Unfortunately for us, this was low season, which means the river water is low, and the boats must stop at night, due to lack of visibility, rendering a journey that normally takes 2-3 days to a minimum of 4, but usually 5-6 days. There were also a lot less options for transportation, and it seemed that the next boat would not be leaving for a couple of days. We ended up giving up on our plans after we realized how long it would take us, and that we would most likely miss Todos Santos holiday, which also happens to be my birthday (Nov.2). As luck would have it, Tomas, the ownwer of our hotel, Amazonas Eco, had two german clients who he had arranged excursions for over the next 2 days. We were able to join them and at least milk the area for some river entertainment. Our first night, we went on a 3 hour jungle walk with flashlights. Strangely, it was as hot and muggy as the day, but without sunlight and with more biting insects? We were initially walking through Banana plantations and near wooden, stilt home villages, eventually entering more dense river jungle. Here we saw the sad effects of deforestation, as we would enter a burned clearing of hacked down trees and sporadically planted rice. The trail had been destroyed and all land marks (usually trees) were gone, making it impossible to discern which way to go. We got temporarily lost in the dark, with fading flashlight batteries...
The next day (of course, we made it out), we took two canoes out on the lagoon, revisited one of the small villages in daylight, bird watched, and swam in the Rio Ichilo. The following morning, Tomas drove the 4 of us back to Cochabamba(in his VW bus), stopping at an Orchid garden along the way, and sharing a tipsy lunch, drinking a cherry liquor - guindol:)

We are now in La Paz, in anticipation of the weekend festivities - Halloween, Day of the Dead, and Todos Santos. My 30th birthday will likely be spent at a cemetery with all the other 'happy' revelers. So far, I love this city. More to come in the next chapter.

un abrazo y un beso,
Sarah y Daniel


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