Published: June 28th 2006June 24th 2006
9.30am in the Amazon basin. I am knee deep in muddy water walking through the middle of a swamp. The parts of my body not covered in muddy water are soaking wet from the sweat dripping off me, because of the oppressive humidity. It feels like it is building up to a massive storm; the sun is hidden behind the clouds.
So, what sort of self inflicted torture am I describing. I was on a Pampas Tour in the Amazon Basin. This wasn't just an excuse for our guide to torture us; we were in fact looking for Anacondas.
Who said travelling was fun?
"Me Llamo Fidel Castro." Yes, I met Fidel, although not that guy that hangs out in Cuba. The Fidel Castro
runs the Hotel El Ambaibo in the little town of Rurrenabaque, which is in the Amazon Basin. Most of Bolivia is in the Amazon, although very few people live in the Amazon regions of the country.
I'm sitting in an Italian Pizza Restaurant full of gringos in the little Amazon Basin town of Rurrenabaque
. Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits is blasting out of the PA. Who
said travellers are interested in the cultures of the places that they visit?
I have good reasons to hate the song 'Sultans of Swing'. I'll take you back to the dim and distant past when I was young. Back in the early 80s I lived in a bed-sit in a big old Victorian house. My room faced north across the Meanwood Ridge. The Meanwood Ridge is a strip of greenery in the city of Leeds. Its a hill that overlooks a green ribbon of land with a beck (stream) at the bottom. Every morning in winter, I would wake up to ice on the inside of the window in my bedroom and condensation on the walls. Added pluses to my living conditions - the house had rising damp and wet rot - once I put my foot through the wooden kitchen floor, it was so rotten.
To add to my misery the couple that lived in the flat below me, insisted on playing Sultans of Swing all night and day, when it was first released. By the time the record hit the charts, I hated it.
Forgive me for that brief diversion from the topic, back in
the days when I was a University drop out, more interested in changing the world than anything else. But I am not, and never was a re-incarnation of Bakunin.
Back on topic, it has been a month since I last posted. At the end of the last blog
I was in Potosi suffering from altitude sickness. I had told the doctor first thing that I didn't have diarrhoea. But by mid-day I did! So I spent the rest of the day in my hotel room. I slept on and off with the TV turned on. I woke up frequently to go to the toilet and shit brown liquid. To be honest I didn´t run too fast, as any exercise left me totally breathless.
The next morning I decided to move town. I took some loperamide to try to stop the diarrhea. I didn't fancy sitting on a bus, so I got a taxi to the town of Sucre. So, at least if I did have an emergency need to stop the vehicle, I could! The reason for making the 2 hour trip was to cure at least one of my problems. Potosi is 4100
m above sea level. Sucre is at an elevation of 2600m. So, by making the drop of 1500m I was hoping to cure the altitude sickness. It worked. The taxi dropped me off in the central plaza of Sucre
. It is a UN World Heritage site. He told me that there was a hotel just around the corner. I found it. The Grand Hotel is very good and cheap. It is a beautifully renovated old building and only cost 100 Bolivianos a night. I spent the most of the next 3 days in my room with the TV turned on all the time to keep me company. After 3 days I felt able to eat and go out. So I moved hotel to a very flash place in the central Plaza, called the Hotel Central Plaza. It was 3 times the price at $US37. That is still cheap by international standards. If you wanted the same standard of hotel in London you would add a zero to the price.
The city centre of Sucre is very pretty, it is full of old colonial buildings. It is still the judicial capital of Bolivia, even if La Paz claims to be
Hotel Capital Plaza, Sucre
My room was on the second from the left
the de-facto capital. Once I was up and about I did some sightseeing which included the Casa de la Libertad, which is where the declaration of independence was signed and Simon Bolivar became the first president of the republic.
Walking around town I met an English couple who had been on the Salaar de Uyuni tour with me mentioned in the last blog. They also had suffered from diarrhoea. In fact it turned out that all of us from the tour had the same symptoms. So, it seems that although our cook had produced food that tasted really good, he had managed to poison the lot of us!
I only spent one night in the really upmarket place, moving to a cheaper place for a couple of nights. The day after my visit to the Casa de la Libertad the streets filled with people. There was a huge festival.
Finally on Weds 24th of May at 6.30pm I left Sucre on an overnight bus to Cochabamba, which is the 3rd largest city in Bolivia. It was a long journey, which unfortunately got into town at 5am. It was dark, everything was closed and the bus didn't stop
at the bus station, but on a back street. I could see a hotel in the distance, so I made my way towards it. Despite claiming to be a 4 star hotel it was firmly closed and locked up tight. Fortunately it was on a main road. I continued walking.... Eventually I found the central bus station. I looked around the place. It had an internet cafe that was open. So I killed some time on the web until the sun came up.
COCHABAMBA , ORURO AND LA PAZ
The city of Cochabamba
is not a tourist destination for gringos but I relaxed there for a few days. Whilst in the city I saw no other gringos. On the 29th of May I continued towards La Paz, stopping the night in the city of Oruro. Oruro
struck me as a very shabby and ugly town. It was also very, very cold.
It is at an elevation of 3,700m. I didn't though feel any effects of altitude sickness. It seems my extended stay at a mere 2,500m had given me an acclimatisation to altitude. Oruro is the sort of ugly, shabby town that you see in
many poor countries. Most streets are unpaved, those that are paved are full of potholes. Most of the buildings are low rise and smeared with grime. The drains are open and stink. Littered at random are semi derelict buildings. Often the buildings that look derelict are lived in; they look as if they have never been finished. It is, as if the builders ran out of money half way through the project.
On the 30th of May I continued to La Paz
arriving in the evening. It was only a brief stay because the next day I continued to Copacabamba.
LAKE TITICATA AND ISLA DEL SOL Copacabamba
is a small town next to Lake Titicata. The Lake claims to be the highest navigable lake in the world. Copacabamba lives off the tourist trade. I was expecting a lot more tourists. There were a lot of hotels but none of them seemed to have many guests. I spent some time walking around town looking at hotels. I finally decided to stay at the Hotel Mirador because it had a wonderful view of the lake and only cost 50 Bolivianos a night. For that I got a
massive room with en-suite bathroom. I had expected the town to be full of gringos. It was supposed to be the high season, so where were all the tourists?
The point of a visit to this town is as a base to visit Isla del Sol, which is the birthplace of the sun god in Inca mythology.
The next day, the 1st of July I woke up at 6am to the sound of thunder and heavy rain. I looked out of the window to see that the streets looked like rivers. I was seriously tempted to stay in bed but I had bought a ticket to Isla del Sol the night before. So, I put on my best waterproofs and staggered down to the boat. Six us us got on the boat. Apparently they had sold 15 tickets but we were the only people mad enough to turn up for a trip in a leaky old boat in the middle of a storm. It continued raining all morning. The first stop of the day was at Isla de la Luna, where we visited the Temple of the Virgins. To be honest, we rushed around the site and back
onto the boat for some shelter.
Finally though the sky cleared and the sun came out in the afternoon. So, we did eventually get some good views of Isla del Sol. The six of us that had made it to the boat felt that we deserved it when the sun came out. Also as we were a small group and felt that we had shared adversity, we bonded as a group; spending the evening together back in Copacabamba after the trip.
LA PAZ AGAIN!
On the 2nd of June I returned to La Paz. I spent a few days relaxing in the city, attending yet another fiesta. On the 6th I took a day trip out to Tiwanaku
. It it the most important ancient site in Bolivia. Tiwanaku was one of the most ancient civilizations in the region. Much of the city was destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors.
Earlier this year in January the new President of Bolivia, Evo Morales
attended an indigenous spiritual ceremony at Tiwanaku. Evo is the first ever indigenous leader of the Bolivian Republic. This is in a country where the majority of the population is indigenous. Those who have a
Spanish heritage are a tiny minority of the population. Yet, the traditional ruling class in the republic are white men, whose ancestors were Spanish. At the ceremony in Tiwanaku, Evo was crowned as the Apu Mallku
of the indigenous people of the Altiplano.
Friends, we have won...I say to Aymaras, Quechuas, Chiquitaos and Guaranis: for the first time we (indigenous people) are going to be presidents.
(Evo, 18 Dec 2005 in Cochabamba)
My next stop was the Amazon Basin. I decided to fly to Rurrenabaque from La Paz. It cost $US60, saving me a 14 hour bus trip. Which takes me to where I started this blog. In the little town of Rurrenabaque I stayed in the Hotel El Ambailo for 200 Bolivianos a night. The owner was very friendly and talkative. I found that I understood his Spanish, but it was very difficult to understand the woman that cleaned the rooms and served the breakfast. She had a much darker skin than Fidel who owned the place. I came to the conclusion that her Spanish wasn't very good, maybe nearly as bad as mine! Rurrenabaque is the main tourist destination in the Amazon basin for gringos. It is a good base for trips into the Amazon rain forest and the Pampas. The Pampas are wetlands.
The Pampas is a much better place to see wildlife than the forest. So, I went on a 3 day tour of the Pampas, returning to the hotel. The whole thing only cost $US75. I also went on a brief canopy tour into the Amazon rain forest - flying over the tree tops on a metal wire and harness. It was a 2km walk through the forest to the starting point of the canopy. On the walk the guide was very informative about the plants in the forest.
I considered flying out of Rurrenabaque but decided against it. On the last day of the Pampas tour it rained heavily and continued raining for days. This meant that all the flights were cancelled for days. The local airport is just a muddy field with no modern equipment. The aircraft that fly into the town are not much more than air taxis. They are little turbo-prop planes with 18 seats. So in bad weather all the flights are cancelled. It looked as if I might have to wait a week if I wanted to fly. The airline wouldn't even sell me a ticket because they had such a long backlog of
people trying to get out of town.
SAN BORJA AND TRINIDAD
So instead I elected to take the bus. The first day I took a minibus to San Borja. It was a relatively short journey of four hours. The minibus was old and falling to bits and the road was one long mud patch.
San Borja is a small town, a backwater of open drains. I only stayed one night. There is not a lot happening in the town. There are very few cars but lots of young men on Japanese motorbikes. In fact the taxis in town are all motos (motorbikes).
The next morning I continued my journey to Trinidad
. The road ( I didn't think it was possible), was even worse than the previous day. It really was one long mud bath to Trinidad from San Borja. The journey took all day. The bus also had to cross several rivers, none of which had bridges. So each time we had to load the bus onto a giant flatbed raft. The raft was pushed along by a little dugout canoe powered with a diesel motor.
Finally at 6pm, just before sunset the
bus rolled into the bus station in Trinidad. I hopped onto a moto taxi, asking him to take me to the central plaza. It is a good thing I don´t carry much in my rucksack, otherwise motorbike taxis would be out of the question. I admit I like moto taxis, it is a form of transport that I got used to in West African cities.
The moto dropped me in the town centre. I then spent the next couple of hours looking for a hotel. Everywhere was full. I couldn't believe it! Usually, hotels in Bolivia have plenty of space. It was getting dark. Crossing a road, I stumbled and nearly fell over but I had put my foot into a concealed open drain. The drain was not obvious because it was full of grass and plants. The bottom of the left leg of my trousers was now covered in foul water that stank of sewage. I had no choice, I had to continue looking for a bed. But I wondered when I kept getting turned away from hotels if they really were full. ¿Were they too polite to say, "you stink!?"
Finally after a dozen or so
refusals I found a hotel. The Hotel Jacaranda Suites was seriously upmarket. At $US45 a night it was probably the most expensive place in the city. It may also have been the only place in town with a free bed that night and they let a man who stank of sewage check in!
The next morning I discovered why everywhere was full. It was a public holiday and there was a major festival in Trinidad. (See my photos).
After the festival on the 17th of June I went to the Museo Kenneth Lee.
The museum is dedicated to the Gran Moxos
. A culture that developed high culture in the Amazon Basin at the same time period as ancient Rome. They built lakes and raised fields that allowed them to farm the Amazon. (Did you think that only hunter-gathers lived in the Amazon?)
SANTA CRUZ AND SAMAIPATA
My next stop after Trinidad was Santa Cruz. I cheated again and flew, saving myself another 12 hour bus ride. When I got to Santa Cruz I went down with food poisoning again!
I like Bolivia and Bolivians but the standards of hygiene in the country are not
Cristo Concordia, Cochabamba
This statue is much higher than the more famous one in Rio.
I finally recovered on the 21st of June. The next day I took a collectivo (shared taxi) to the village of Samaipata, 120km from Santa Cruz. Samaipata is near a national park. It is also 10km from an ancient ceremonial site known as El Fuerte de Samaipata
. This is a mysterious site. The culture seems to have been influenced by both Amazonian and highland cultures.
I was considering visiting the site where Che Guevara
was killed by the Bolivian army. It is not far from Samaipata. The travel agents in the village all organize Che tours. The current president Evo Morales has hung of poster of Che above his desk in the Presidential Palace. But I decided that I didn't need to see the place where Che died. Much as I like Bolivia it was time to move on. So, I returned to Santa Cruz in order to write up this blog. My next stop will be Paraguay. A Bolivian to whom I described my travel plans said,
"No tourists go to Paraguay."
I'm about to prove him wrong.
There are more photos below