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Published: September 28th 2010
(N) I was especially excited about Bolivia, and when I saw the first framed picture of Evo Morales adorn the border post, could not suppress my squeals of excitement. The bus journey from Puno was a pleasant, three-hour ride; at one point we had to get off the bus to take a boat over Lake Titicaca, while the bus with our precious belongings was ferried over on a raft that might have struck me as not sea-worthy pre-Malawi. Back on the bus, we met a lovely South African couple, who we spent most of our time with in Copacabana, and who gave us three pages of solid advice about hostels, food, where not to go etc in the other countries we are planning to visit.
Though Copacabana, other than a stunning church, where the Virgen de Copacabana herself resides (framed and in spirit), boasts nothing much, I immediately liked it. Our accommodation was dirt cheap and the best we had stayed in so far, and lovely little restaurants offered decent grub - including tasty trout - and beers. After a couple of days of not doing very much, we took a ferry over to the Isla del Sol, a place
Isla del Sol
revered as highly spiritual in Andean culture and in fact, the place where God created the sun and the moon. We were recommened to stay in the south of the island and hike to the north the next day, which is what we did. However, were completey baffled how wrong that piece of advice was - to be honest, I found the island a tad disappointing after our arrival in the south - it didn’t match the stunning beauty described in many travellers’ tales. The north however, was spectacular: all authentic villages, pigs & donkeys running around, beautiful beaches and stunning cliffs, and barely a gringo in sight. We contemplated staying an extra night, but decided against it in view of our fairly tight schedule. 3 weeks per country in South America is not that much. So on we headed to La Paz, packed with anticipation. My dear friend Marcela, who is Chilean and well-travelled in the continent, had told me before our trip that La Paz is practically the only capital city worth spending time in (other than B.A. and Rio). And it certainly is a place where one can get stuck. It’s not beautiful, but oh-so lively and
interesting - all you have to do is wander the streets or find a cafe to watch the world go by, and the city pulls you in. So much character. We stayed in a very cool hostel right around the corner from the Witches’ Market, where a variety of love potions, libido busters, and llama foetuses for good luck (different ages available) are on offer by ladies with long black braids and a subtle “don’t mess with me”-attitude. Against all odds, I managed to sneak a few pictures. A big novelty in our hostel was a rooftop kitchen - and although it gets rather cold at night, we jumped at the chance to cook our own food for a change. You can only eat so much Quinoa soup, unidentifyable meat and pizza (there’s pizza everywhere, mostly shite).
On our first day, we set about trying to find a suitable operator to take us on our planned jungle and pampas tour, but decided in the end to just get there and sort it out there and then. In ignorance of our budget, we chose to fly to Rurrenabaque, the “Gateway to the Amazon” - the alternative was a minimum 18
hour (sometimes 25) bus trip that we had heard horror tales about. I don’t regret our choice - 40 minutes after take off, we touched down in Rurre, and were immediately overwhelmed by the heat. With the exception of Huacachina, we’ve been moving in high altitude and rather chilly places, and stepping off the aeroplane, the humid 40 degrees were like a kick in the face - however one most welcome.
We both luuuurved Rurre; nobody we met had mentioned to us what a lovely little town it is, nestled between the lush jungle and the mighty River Beni... for the first time so far, I felt we were somewhere really different.
Really different was also the option we chose when selecting our jungle trip. Rurre is full of tour agencies that offer all the same stuff (they even bundle customers of different tour companies together, it’s all very same-same); but we found a little gem called Mogli Tours, run by a family who come from, and still live in the jungle, and have none of that tourist guide air that was so suffocating elsewhere. Their slogan is “no chairs, no tables, no beds” - and while I am
not high-maintenance, Matt did have some trouble convincing me to sleep out in the jungle, the only things separating me from the bugs and tarantulas a stiff sleeping mat and a mosquito net. But boy, what an experience. It was only the two of us, our guide Milton and Rina, our cook, who was the loveliest person I have met so far, and whom I subsequently adopted as my jungle mum, cuddles and all. It did not feel like we were on a tour at all, more like they had invited us into their home. For three days, we trekked around the jungle, learnt about natural remedies and ways of getting water, practised our Spanish (they spoke no English) and - our highlight - went piranha fishing in the most stunning lake at sunset, which was reminiscent of Botswana. Both Matt and I got lucky and managed to hook a few fishies with our handlines (first fish I ever caught without help - so cool), and let me tell you - dinner was delicious! The one and only downside was the apocalyptic mosquitoes and the sandflies, who actually make you bleed. They are relentless and bother you any time of
the day, ignoring all repellent and biting through clothes. Matt counted 81 bites on my upper back alone on the first night, so after 3 days, we were both relieved to get outta there.
The return journey to Rurre was a gorgeous, three hour trip in a boat, reflecting on the amazing experience we had just had. We were so impressed that we went back to Mogli first thing with the intention of booking a Pampas tour with them - they are also the only agency that do not go into Madidi National Park, where all the other operators have lodges next to each other, but further down the river (you get there on horses), where you don’t see a living soul. Unfortunately there were no other people booked in, we couldn’t afford to go by ourselves and my attempts at recruiting strangers in bars that evening were unsuccessful. We were both gutted but booked a standard tour in the end. We saw a lot of animals (hundreds of Cayman alligators; capavaras - or caipirinhas as we liked to call them; and loads of stunning birds) but the experience wasn’t even close to the jungle, with people everywhere, even
though it was quiet season. This wasn’t helped by the fact that a) only a day before the pampas had been on fire and everything was burnt down, and b) Matt and I got food poisoning the day after our arrival - in my case, it was so bad that I had to miss out on swimming with pink dolphins that day, and it would continue to influence our plans....
Back in La Paz, I discovered that mine was not a 24 hour bug and lay in bed with violent stomach cramps for a whole day and night, so the next morning we went in search of a hospital, where they gave me antibiotics and told me to come back for a blood test on Monday morning. After taking my first dose, I felt immediately better - we went out the same night in La Paz, and cycled down the world’s formely most dangerous road (quite scary; I wasn’t initially up for it, but Matt was desperate to do it and after contemplating the alternative, a minibus, I figured it’s safer to go on a bike where I have some kind of control). The blood test/diagnosis saga was however
to continue. I won’t bore you with it, let’s just sum it up as 7 trips to hospitals in La Paz and Coroico, having my arms poked until bruised by a miserable nurse who couldn’t find my vein, various substances having to be evaluated and severe communication challenges - Doctor, repeatedly: “Kaka, kaka” Me: “Disculpe, no comprendo....?” Matt: “Darling, you have to shit into a cup.” All this only for them to confirm what we knew all along - food poisoning... and to be told I should avoid soft drinks and eat plain food for two days.
The area around Coroico, a charming little town from where I'm writing now, is famous for mostly three things: an old, high-profile Nazi living rather close to a community of Jewish refugees, amazing views and good food. We are unlikely to encounter number 1 or 2 (unfortunately there are a lot of wildfires here as well; the whole sky is nothing but smoke) - so sod it, I’m having steak tonight.
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