The Long and Winding Road to Rurrenabaque!

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May 14th 2007
Published: August 9th 2007
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I'm now back in La Paz after 5 days away in jungle to the north in a place called Rurrenabaque. The flight back took 40 mins, an altitude change of approximately 3500m from a balmy 29 degrees in the shade (according to my watch which tells funky things like the altitude and the temperature as well as telling the time) to a modest 15 degrees in the sun. The plane was a 20 seater, two seats per row. Unfortunately it was also an oven (steamy windows so alas not the best view either), so it was a quite a shock to get out dripping with sweat to the cool Pacena air. But compared to the 34 hour bus journey there it was heaven!! More on that journey below...

First, back to Potosi, the world's highest city (as opposed to La Paz which is the world's highest capital city) and also home to some amazing (-ly horrible) silver mines situated in the mountain that dominates the city... Cerro Rico. The mines have been running ever since the spanish came here in the 1500s and have apparently killed about 9 million people since then. Now of course they are a tourist attraction, but still in use. The trip into the mines was definitely an unforgettable experience and hopefully one i'll never repeat in my life. We were taken from our hostel (the Koala Den, one of the nicest hostels so far, though someone stole my underwear from the clothes line!! 😞 ) to the Miner's market, where we were able to buy dynamite (80p a stick) and Ceibo alcohol (96 proof) to give as gifts to the miners. The shop was very stuffy and I almost passed out there, so alarm bells were ringing for the mines. A slow crawl up to the mine entrance followed, and then a live demonstration of dynamite being exploded. Very loud! Unfortunately we didn't manage to blow up our australian-chinese group member, possibly the most irritating person i've ever met, though she almost managed it herself by taking about a million photos of herself in various poses as her fuse burnt down. For a laugh, we all ran off leaving her alone with it - only then did it dawn on her that she had 30 seconds left to get rid of it!

So the mines - well they were hot, dark, stuffy, dusty, choking, claustrophobic, dangerous (lots of open shafts for hapless tourists to fall down), and full of extremely dirty and drunken miners (see photo). We were told that being the afternoon of the first friday of the month, they were especially drunk, however i'm not convinced by this. They were just plain drunkards and who can blame them living their lives down there, some as young as 13. We crawled, slithered, ducked, inched and climbed our way around the first 3 levels of the mine (one of 200 present in the mountainside) for the best part of 3 hours, dodging the mine carts being pushed at some speed. Every time we passed miners there would be more compulsory drinking (rude to decline, first two sips to the devil and mother earth) and although i barely touched the alcohol to my lips (for obvious medical/hygiene reasons) it did help to settle the nerves. Our guide on the other hand took things a little further, and his commentary became increasingly colourful as the tour progressed. Well i've never been so happy to see daylight ever as when we got out.

So that was Potosi, the next day was a rest day (Lukas still had bowel problems - i'm currently sympathising with him there!!!). I took a stroll (believe me even strolling at 4050m above sea level is hard work) around the town for some photos and also stumbled upon a car market selling lots of second hand japanese minibuses, complete with their original livery and signs in japanese! So for your information you can buy a 25 seater bus for about UKP1000. That night we took the night bus to La Paz, an 11 hour journey... nothing! That passed quickly and dropped us off all too early at 6am in the bus terminal. We got a taxi to a hostel and passed out for a few hours in a proper bed. .

After a day in La Paz we decided to splash out on a plane to Rurrenabaque north of La Paz. Not far on the map but reportedly an 18 hour bus journey if things go well. Who would be stupid enough to catch a bus like that?! Er, well us. After our flight got cancelled two days in a row due to heavy rain in Rurrenabaque (thankfully we manage to fill our time with a visit to the nearby archaeological site of Tiwanaku) we made the split decision to go for the bus leaving in 30 minutes. Without breakfast and sporting a slight hangover from a night in the Hard Rock café here, we rushed across town to get the bus (4UKP). Well it wasn’t the most comfortable bus, but it wasn’t the worst either. And we were soon trundling down the so-called most dangerous road in the world from La Paz to La Cumbre a descent of approximately 4000m mainly on unsurfaced roads. Alas, for the entire descent the view from my side was of a cliff about two feet from my face. The other side had all the views (including 500m drops within inches, and cloud soaked mountainsides). So all was going well till approximately 11pm (12 hours into the journey) when I was rudely awoken by branch slapping me in the face. I had slept through the first part of the minor incident. We’d got stuck in the mud, and the first effort to free the vehicle (all Bolivian efforts involved digging holes into the road) resulted in us swinging sideways further off the road and thus into the tree branch which poked through my open window. We all got off to assess the situation. Things no longer looked good, but not too bad. It was raining and dark, and the wheels were spinning. But surely we could get a passing truck to give us a tow? Well the first few trucks to stop (oh yes we were blocking the road in both directions) didn’t seem too amenable to help. The locals struggled on, with a few crass comments that we should get digging too. By 2am the rain really started to pour, and suddenly we realized it was just us gringos left (about 10 of us) on the mud bath that the road had turned into. We tried to get back on board the bus, but it was guarded by a particularly nasty Bolivian woman who claimed first that the bus was at too dangerous an incline to board (er,,, except that most of the Bolivians were aboard), then that men weren’t allowed on, then that gringos weren’t allowed on. Well we contemplated storming the bus, but settled for getting the women folk onboard (there were about 4 girls amongst us). Us men would track down the drivers who were last seen heading up to one of the trucks. We found them sheltering in the wheel arches of the truck, seemingly happy to bed down there for the night. All very well except there weren’t enough wheel arches to go around. So after some blaspheming (they really didn’t seem to care where we were going to sleep) we convinced them that we had a technique to get the bus moving (some Israelis had the plan). It didn’t work. But after putting in some work, we were finally allowed to board the bus to sleep, somewhat bedraggled. After 4 hours of somewhat cold sleep (in wet t-shirt and far from equatorial temperatures) we were greeted by dawn, and more failed efforts by the Bolivians to get the bus going. By this time there were about 15 trucks waiting in both directions. One truck lent a rope and had pulled us backwards, but this only made things worse. Now the bus was at a ridiculous incline (one bolivian woman still snoring peacefully aboard) and resting precariously against a rather frail looking tree. So next came more digging, the removal of a huge stone from beneath the back wheel, which must surely be causing the bus to be stuck. Well no it wasn’t. Then we got a truck to pull from the front. No luck. Then two trucks in series, with about 30 people in various positions pushing and pulling. Finally it came free! I have the video. In total 13 hours stuck in the mud! Well god only knows, how everyone else got past that spot in the road since it was seriously cratered, but we were off again! And incident-free till Rurrenabaque, with new found friends made during our morning crouched under trucks drinking imaginary winter pimms to keep warm!

So we hooked up with 6 others for a 3-day trip to the nearby Pampas, two English girls, one of each American, Columbian, german and swiss guys (names for the record: Abi, Katie, Bryan, Mauricio, Tom, Rafa). The pampas is not really the jungle, but the area bordering the nearby rivers, with loads of birdlife, and dolphins, alligators (up to 7m but scared of the dolphins!), anacondas (allegedly!!), piranhas (just little uns), and lots and lots of mosquitos!! It really was an incredibly beautiful place. And our tour was pretty cushy - nice food, and boat trips to see all the stuff. We went alligator hunting at night time and got right up close to one, anaconda hunting in a swamp (wellie boots all round) where we all got eaten alive, swimming with dolphins (yup you only swim where the dolphins are for safety), listening to Bryan’s very bad jokes, and lots of hanging around on hammocks! That’s the life!!! We stayed in a compound all on stilts with connecting walkways between sleeping, dining, toilet areas and of course the Sunset bar. (Lots of sunrise and sunset photos to come!)

And of course a plane back to La Paz!

Well it would have been nice to stay down there longer, and maybe do the jungle proper (though I suspect this would have been 5 days of mosquito hell) but i’ve got to get to Cusco soon for the Machu Picchu trek on the 25th (as does Lukas).

Well tomorrow we’re back to the world’s most dangerous road, to mountain bike down. That’s what everyone does here, so why not! I will be biking down especially fast as I suspect there aren’t too many toilets en route!! We signed up for a mid pricerange company which ensures brakes etc,,, will be working I hope!

Additional photos below
Photos: 11, Displayed: 11


16th May 2007

an entertaining blog!
Hey Nick, Í loved the story with the bus, all very funny. Looking forward to the photos. Happy travels!
16th May 2007

hey nick, you should write on the picasa photo link again, I forgot
22nd May 2007

Hi Scrawny, better pack some mud ladders in your rucsac! Enjoy yourself in Machu P you jammy git. You'll love Dead Woman's Pass. If MP is misty, chill out, it will clear...
12th June 2007

Trickster, keep it coming. You're number two on Google!!!!

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