La Paz to Oruro -a mammoth journey

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November 3rd 2015
Published: December 25th 2017
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Geo: -17.9753, -67.1108

La Paz to the Amazon

En route to La Paz we stayed in Samaipata for a few days. The first time we walked to the main plaza who should we meet but Axel. He was camping which in his case means sleeping in a hammock on a campsite but as Samaipata is 1,500 metres high he was finding the nights very cold and thinking of moving into a hostel. He had been walking in the hills the previous day and had severe sunburn on his shoulders and back.

Samaipata has a number of waterfalls around it but the main reason for visiting is to see La Fuerte, ruins going back to 400 AD which had been home to many different peoples over the centuries. It is one of the places where Erich von Danniken proposed aliens might have landed. The ruins consist of low walls and foundations of numerous buildings of different ages but the main interest is the huge carved rock which is divided into a number of temples and is covered with carvings of animals.

After saying goodbye to Axel once again we set off on the long bus journey to La Paz.

La Paz proved exciting in more ways than one. I finished the last blog by mentioning my concern about the altitude. The city is 3,600 metres above sea level and the airport (called appropriately El Alto - 'the high one'😉 which is above the city is around 4.000 metres.

It is one of the most dramatic cities I have visited as the centre is situated at the bottom of a wide ravine and the brown brick buildings then crawl up the cliffs and hills in all directions to the top. They appear to be built one on top of another as the slopes are so steep. In places they look as if they are pictures painted on to the clifffs as it is hard to believe that real houses with people living in them can possibly cling on to their precarious ledges. Down in the centre where we stayed the roads were impossibly steep with small collective minivans racing up and down them at speed as well as ordinary cars. How their brakes hold I can't imagine. There is a large flat plaza in the centre, the only place I felt stable! Around and above the outskirts of the city, high, snow topped mountains form a circle enclosing the city in it's own world. It is a truly dramatic setting which left us asking why people settled here, it seems such a problematical place to have a capital city. La Paz is the de facto capital but Sucre is the constitutional capital. All transport links are through La Paz (unbelievable, given it's location) and Sucre is also difficult to access as it has a poor road connection.

Because of the altitude we had to move slowly and climbing steps took some time as we would do 3 or 4 steps then stop and rest before the next few. Usually soroche (altitude sickness) takes 10 or 12 hours to develop but we seemed to be coping well at our snails pace. We arrived early in the morning having travelled for 24 hours in 2 buses, checked in to our hostel and went to look around the centre.

We were located next to the main plaza, which has a beautiful church, lots of small tourist shops selling the usual gifts and a huge number of clothes and colourful blankets made from llama and alpaca wool. The 'witches market' was just around the corner where they specialise in the herbs, plants and other items (such as llama foetuses) that are required by healers to treat their clients. They are not particularly tourist friendly as they like to go about their business privately without answering questions about what the items on sale are and how they might be used so I did not use the camera and stayed quiet.

The we heard loud noises that could have been bird scarers or shots. No-one seemed perturbed so we ignored them until the sounds came closer and then we could see a demonstration marching by the plaza with people 'firing' from long tube like devices which made impressively loud explosions. I don't know what they are called or how they work as they are not something I have seen before. I tried to understand what the demonstration was about. There were community and neighbourhood groups marching together and posters objecting to a new byelaw but I could not work out what it was as it was only identified by its number. It was a long procession.

After it passed we carried on looking around and then went back to our hostel to arrange a flight to Rurrenabaque, on the edge of the Amazon basin where we were to be collected to go on a birding trip. Originally we had planned to go by bus but after reading about the journey, which climbs across the Andes on hairpin bends and is not recommended for the faint hearted, Jim relented and agreed we could be extravagant for once and fly. The receptionist in the hostel was very helpful and soon had the flight booked for late afternoon the next day, giving us time to see more of the city, or so we thought.

We went out to have dinner and I watched the news as we ate. I was fascinated to see the news being read by a young lady in traditional Aymara (the largest indigenous group in the area) clothing complete with the bowler hat. The news showed the demonstration and I gradually picked up more information. Above the town, near the airport, a community has grown very rapidly which is also called El Alto. They have to travel into the city each day for work and the new bye-law is allowing the 'choferes', the collective minibus drivers on whom the people of El Alto depend, to increase their fares considerably, hence the demonstration. I continued to watch the news and see representatives of the choferes getting more and more heated at the accusations of profiteering from the people of El Alto. Then breaking news: The choferes are going on strike. Not unlike home we thought and returned to the hostel.

We were met by a concerned member of staff who said that the strike might be a problem and make it difficult to get to the airport the following day. He suggested that we be ready to leave early and see what the situation was like then.

After a good sleep (a positive sign as a symptom of altitude sickness is difficulty sleeping), and breakfast we asked about transport. The receptionist called the taxi company who said their driver had just left with their first passenger who was going to the airport. When he returned they would know how difficult it was. The receptionist then checked outside but no taxis were around as they usually were. After 40 minutes the taxi company called to say if we went straight away they would try to take us but they had to charge more, approximately £12 which is expensive in Bolivia. The receptionist said it might be "a little bit dangerous" so she sent her male assistant in the car with us and told us to have the flight tickets ready to show anyone who stopped us.

In fact all was fine but we were taken aback by how seriously the situation was being dealt with. The taxi driver criss-crossed through streets to avoid main junctions. We thought perhaps this was to justify the inflated price until we had to cross a junction and saw choferes trying to block the roads and groups of police in full riot gear. We passed through easily but our driver was clearly very nervous. Above the town a new road leads up to El Alto, town and airport. At the start of this road the police had stopped all traffic coming down into the town, there were crowds, the media with cameras out in force and huge numbers of riot police. They let us leave the city and we climbed up towards the airport, surprised by the numbers of riot police waiting in groups on each corner. Finally we reached the airport, very early for our flight but happy that we were there.

Of course we had not taken into account the extra altitude at the airport and after a couple of hours we could both feel the effects. I had a bad headache and Jim felt generally unwell. I could control take the edge off the headache just, by breathing deeply, but it was not pleasant and we could not wait to fly out, until we saw the plane!

As we climbed the two steps up into the plane we had to bend down (yes even I needed to bend) as it was only about 1.35 metres (4 1/2 feet) high and the same width. It felt like being inside a large cigar! There were 19 passenger seats, 2 seats in each row, one at each side window and a small space to climb through in the middle. Luckily we were in the second 'row' seats so it did not feel too claustrophobic. We both felt we might have had problems if we had been seated at the back. It was a Fairchild SA 227 with 2 propellers, originally owned by Lonestar Airways for any interested plane experts out there, I was disconcerted when, as the engines started, I turned to say something to Jim and saw the man in front of Jim and 3 behind all make the sign of the cross at the same moment.

The flight was fine and as soon as the plane pressurised we both started to feel better, just in time to appreciate the amazing view as we had to rise up over the snow covered peaks surrounding La Paz. Only 45 minutes later we came in to land in a very different environment, the hot and humid jungle of Rurrenbaque.

There is a pattern to travel in Bolivia that we now recognise. At first you have a sense of achievement when you arrive at a new destination as it is always difficult, lengthy and sometimes uncomfortable getting there. This is followed a couple of hours later by a niggling doubt that you will ever manage to leave. Then the more information you gather the more this concern increases. So we are now in Rurrenabaque and due to go on our birding trip, returning here in four days. We do not want to fly back to La Paz as ascending to that altitude quickly would not be too sensible so we need to take the bus to Trinidad and change there to connect to Santa Cruz. Easy! Just one problem on the horizon. They are predicting a week of rain. If that happens then the road to Trinidad will be impassable. I am not sure if impassable means for a few days or until the end of the wet season in March! It might have to be the plane but if it is raining and/or cloudy the planes don't fly as they need good visibilty to miss the peaks. I am sure it will resolve itself somehow.

Rurrenabaque is a pleasant small town, and after a couple of days we were collected at 7am to go to Sidiri Lodge, a 4 hour drive away. Sidiri is community owned and run. In 2008 a timber company approached the Community of San Jose de Uchupiamonas who own approximately 2,200 hectares of primary forest. The company wanted to cut the hard woods in particular which have grown huge in primary tracts of forest but they would have deforested the whole area. The Community felt they might have no option but too accept as they need some income but they were not happy with the idea. One Community member who is living out of the area is a partner with Birding Bolivia, a specialist travel company which organises birding tours. She and her partner suggested that if there was a lodge within the Community they could support it by bringing people to stay as it is an outstanding birding area.

As Ricardo our guide explained, everyone thought this was a crazy idea because they could not imagine people paying to come and spot birds. They had no idea that it is a big business. Anyway, eventually after much discussion, the whole Community voted to turn down the timber company and build a lodge. They have made a superb job of it. The 6 cabins are beautifully built with traditional materials but to a high comfort level with well fitted bathrooms, hot showers etc. Although the roofs are thatched with open overhangs they have minimised the number of uninvited 'guests' by putting mesh over all the open spaces and even put seals on the bottom of the doors which is where insects usually come in at night. However, a palm tanager bird did get into our cabin, we think when it was being cleaned, so we had some fun when they hd to evict him!

It is a brave step for the Community but so far it seems to be working well, although the road to the Lodge is in very poor condition so that will limit access during heavy rain. The Lodge is staffed by a guide for each group, a cook and a couple of helpers and apart from them no-one else is around for miles. We were so well looked after it was unbelievable. Birding Bolivia has trained the guides and are continuing the process with more young people.

The birding was excellent. We saw well over 100 different species in the four days. The insect life was just as varied and I enjoyed another night walk leaving Jim to drink a beer in the dining room/social area. Ricardo had told us that a month earlier a group of peccaries had moved into the area outside the dining room. It was unusual for them to come so close. Then that night a couple said they heard a cat but Ricardo told them they were mistaken. The next morning they found 2 dead peccaries that had been mauled by a Jaguar. During the night walk we heard something move and Ricardo switched off the torch so as not to frighten it away. At that moment in the sudden darkness I wished he had not told me about the Jaguar.

Back in Rurrenabaque we learned that the expected rain had not arrived so we were able to start our mammoth journey to Uyuni. This has involved a collective car from Rurrenabaque to Trinidad ( 9 hours over a truly unbelievable road with potholes the size of swimming pools), a 5 hour wait for the overnight bus to Santa Cruz (10 hours) where we had a lovely day visiting the Zoo which has indigenous animals only and then having a long leisurely lunch overlooking the Cathedral and main square before embarking on the next overnight bus to Oruro (15 hours). In the bus stations dozens of companies (probably with only a few buses each) compete to sell tickets to the various destinations but most buses leave early in the morning or late evening. We did not choose overnight buses because we are masochists, that is how the system works.

Oruro is simply the next step of the journey. We arrived on Sunday morning and await the next train which leaves on Tuesday to Uyuni. We could take a bus but not surprisingly we opted for a train. There are very few in Bolivia so we thought we could take advantage of the one running from Oruro to Uyuni. We are travelling executive class - I think we deserve it!

As we came out of the station we saw that the market was set up across the railway lines. Jim said they must not be in use anymore. Two minutes later the big gates to the railway sidings opened and out came an engine. There was a flurry of movement as stall holders lifted their stalls out of the way of the oncoming engine and as soon as it passed they moved back again.

Oruro is a desolate place, a long standing mining town where the tin extracted from the hills dominating the skyline has produced slag heaps and pollution. It seems it it now sitting on the largest silicon deposit in the world so the mining will continue. The buildings are made from brown rough bricks and left uncovered, as in La Paz, so they all look unfinished, dreary and depressing. We could have a slightly jaundiced view as we have both suffered altitude sickness here. I won't give details but it is not pleasant. Hopefully we are adjusting and will soon feel better. However, it has left us concerned about the planned trip across the Salar de Uyuni as that is even higher. We will see how we are feeling when we reach Uyuni and make a decision then.

Additional photos below
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3rd November 2015

We enjoyed reading your latest blog and superb photography and look forward to the next step of your journey. Stay safe and happy travels. P&Sx
3rd November 2015

Very handsome

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