Chloe Hayes: Seeing South America - Chapter 4 (part 2)
When we got back on dry land we had just enough time to grab our stuff, have some food and get on our bus to La Paz. I must say after experiencing the luxury of Peruvian buses it wasn´t great, but nothing I am not used to, just your average coach that you would get on to go to have swimming lessons from school. We were driving for about an hour when the bus stopped, we all had to clamber off into the cold dark night, pay another boat tax of some description, get on some sort of tiny wooden boat and sail over the other side of the lake. Hilarious in itself, but how the bus got over was funnier. It had to drive very slowly onto what I can only describe as a wooden pallet/ aircraft carrier/ tugboat, be pulled over the lake, then ungracefully heave itself out and come and pick us up on the other side. We finally got to La Paz around 10.30pm and Marco, 2 Dutch girls from the bus and I went straight to the nearest hostel that I found from the bus station. I had the Death Road in the morning and I was desperate for some sleep so that I could concentrate properly. Annoyingly it was a party hostel and the people were so loud! I know I shouldn´t complain, I just got thankfully into my bed and tried to sleep among the whispers and clatters and giggles.
The bus for the Death Road was coming to pick me up at 7.15am so I got up, sorted my stuff out and shoved as many free pancakes in my face as I possibly could seeing as breakfast only started at 7am. It only took about an hour and a half with 4 Israelis and me on the bus. We were up about 4900 meters and it was super freezing and covered in snow! I had not expected that at all! It was really beautiful though and so lovely to feel that crisp cold air that comes with snow. There was another bus that was also in our group consisting of 3 Americans and a fellow Brit. We had some tea and bread and then got suitably kitted out with knee and elbow pads and full on thick trousers and a jacket to prevent skin burns etc. With all of this and my helmet, I got a bit scared realising that the closest thing I had got to an extreme sport was the sand boarding in Huacuchina, hardly for adrenaline junkies. I got on my bike and we had a practice cycle around the flat pavement before heading off on the first leg of the journey.
For me, this was the scariest part, the new road we had to cycle in order to get to the old road, The Death Road. For those of you who haven´t heard of it, it is a road in Bolivia that curves around the side of a mountain with a sheer drop on one side. It was named the Most Dangerous Road in the World in the 90´s because so many fatal accidents happened there all the time. The road is now shut to all traffic apart from bikes and tour buses (and little kids with their tricycles). So basically the new road is still very steep and still very curvy but it is much wider and it actually has barriers o the cliff edge. It was the scariest part because there was actually traffic on it. Halfway down the guide showed us a burnt out bus at the bottom of the cliff where it had collided with a cyclist and gone off the edge. Thanks! It was like cycling on a really dangerous steep motorway with HGV´s and huge coaches and everything all trying to pass you and the other side of traffic without actually being able to see around the corner.
Once we got on the Death Road it wasn´t too scary. It had suddenly become very hot and almost humid as we began to enter the jungle, coming from the snow just an hour before felt a bit strange and we were all very hot in our outfits. The views were again, truly beautiful, especially as it started to get more green and tropical looking. We headed off and I was of course, second to last having never mountain biked in my life. Yes, the road was steep and yes, the drop was sheer but the biggest worry was the ridiculously uneven ground and huge boulders and rocks that were just in the middle of the path. As long as you avoided them you were all good, you weren´t gonna go off the edge unless you were being an idiot of you clipped a rock the wrong way. Fear was overtaken by concentration and I found myself really enjoying the ride as long as I remembered to focus. The guides were incessantly taking photographs and videos of us and we were cycling through tiny little hamlets and waterfalls and beautiful trees. We stopped every so often and by the time we had finished the last steep descent we had been going for about 4 hours.
We got to a small cafe and the guides took our bikes to clean them and we had a well-deserved rest, not from the minimum physical effort of coasting down a hill but from the mental challenge. My hands were also killing me as 4 hours of your hands in prime braking position and with your wrists rattling over the bumpy ground does not do them any good. We were also super proud and I was so glad that not only was I not scared, but I had also really enjoyed it, it was one of the best things I had done so far! We were presented with our survivor T-shirts, YAY! And got back on the bus to head to lunch, we had only really eaten cereal bars and fruit all day and it was 4pm so I was starving!
At the Hotel we had a buffet lunch and then had a refreshing dip in the pool. On the road, it was so dry and dusty that the water felt amazing and the Israeli girls and I chatted about La Paz and what to do to there because I was a bit worried about filling my time. After my dip, I found a mango tree and although they are not ready yet, there was one that had fallen onto a wall. I picked it up and couldn´t resist peeling it open, I had to taste it! It was amazing and I literally ate the whole thing like an apple. We were all summoned back into the bus and it took about 2 and a half hours to get back. I went straight to the tour company as I needed to pay and I wanted to book some other tours and then booked a taxi from my Hostel to a smaller, quieter one that I was more in the mood for as I just wanted to have a bit of a rest after travelling a lot. This is where the panic started, I´d had no cash all day and there wasn´t one near the hostel so I got in the taxi penniless, asking to stop at a cash machine. Well, after stopping every bank in Bolivia and every cash machine in La Paz with no joy, I was really freaking out. I really didn´t want this when a cab driver was waiting for me, getting less and less patient, late at night with all my stuff on me after a long day. I remembered about my emergency cash card and it worked! Hallelujah! After I decided to look onto my online banking (one of the excellent services from this thing called technology) and realised I had reached my card limit. THANK GOD! I thought my card had been blocked or it didn´t work in Bolivia or something but I paid off the limit and we were all good to go again. Few, that´s the scariest thing that´s happened to me so far.
Ok lie in day today after busy Hostel rooms and spanish lessons and overnight buses etc. It was truly delightful and afterwards I went out to explore La Paz for the first time. I had an epic jugo and fruit salad for breakfast then went to join the Red Cap Walking Tour in Plaza San Pedro. They began by talking a little bit about the scary ridiculous prison next to the plaza that makes it´s own cocaine and people pay to live in plush apartments with big screen TVs in and then we headed onto the markets. I love a good market and we walked through the first one, the food market then spoke a bit about the cholitas, the ladies that work there. We were told that once you buy from your Cholita you never cheat on her and the more you go back, the more you get for your money, there are no supermarkets in La Paz at all. Then we went onto the witches market which was full of crazy herbs, plants, potions and dried llama foetuses, yep. We were told a terrifying story that I am not sure I believe but I sort of do and most people on the tour seemed to believe it as well. When Bolivians build a new house or small building they use the dried llama foetuses as an offering to the Pachamama, mother earth to ask permission to build on that land. Wierd but ok, however when they build large buildings such as office blocks or appartments they have to make a human sacrafice. Say whaaat?! Apparently one of the construction workers will go and ´hang out´ with some homeless people, they specifically choose someone that nobody will miss, awful, and give the chosen victim 90% alcohol. Once unconsious (as it needs to be a live sacrafice) the victim is placed in the foundations of the buildings and covered in concrete. Holy mother of god what? Apparently human remains have been found at a lot of construction sites and a guy who this actually happened to and managed to escape has written a book about it, I must find out his name. All of us where saying that it must be murder, it must be illegal but apparently no one talks about it here. We were being told all this two days before Hallowe´en/ Day of the Dead as well, which is huge in Bolivia.
After this creepy revelation we moved swiftly on to the San Francisco Cathedral and then the Mercado Lanza where I ate an epic sandwich de palta (avocado) and some had jugos etc and we moved onto Plaza Murillo. This is where the President lives and boy could you tell as well. This tiny plaza no bigger than a playground was filled with military, uniformed guards policeman, huge security cars, you name it they were there. We were told many things about the politicians and Presidents through the ages of Bolivia which sounded like a farce and then we finished off in a pub toasting with a drink that can only be described as brandy and orange juice.
After the tour I had a bit of an explore, took some photos and had dinner. It started to absolutely chuck it down so I went back to my hostel, had a shower and got into my pajamas. The lady running the hostel was watching the Bolivian version of ´Strictly Come Dancing´ which, if you can believe it, is actually tackier than our version. Her son was there and I gave him a few biscuits that I had bought from the special Day of the Dead market in the main plaza and sat with them whilst I updated my instagram. It felt so nice being in my pjs with a family watching the telly whilst I listened to the rain coming down on the glass roof, it was properly homely and just what I needed. A bit later on two english girls came in and we got chatting about travelling (again) and just general English life. After Bolivian Stricly, this horrific programme that looked like the Bolivian Geordie Shore came on, we watched laughing at all the ridiculousness as although we had no idea what they were saying, you really didn´t need to. One was shagging the other who fancied the other, they were all snogging each other in clubs and getting drunk. End of Story.
In the morning I knew I had to catch my flight to Rurrenebaque and so didn´t plan much other than mooching around. As soon as I stepped out onto the main avenue there was a huge street festival going on. Dancers, singers, loads of stalls and food and I literally just spent all morning slowly walking through it allowing my eyes to feast. I had a strange lunch of some sort of pork soup situation and then went to catch my flight. It was the easiest flying experience I have ever had it was utterly incredible. About half an hour before the plane was due to leave our flight was called, about 9 people went to the gate and we strolled straight on to a teeny weeny 19 seater plane, amazing! Because we were all there the plane just left like 20 minutes before it was due to and I went from La Paz city to Rurrenebaque in the jungle within about an hour. We landed in between the trees of the rainforest and the ´airport´ was basically a shack with some mesh fencing around it. I got my bag straight off the plane and my transfer was waiting for me. I ended up in Hotel Los Tucanes and met these 3 Belgian girls playing cards. I joined them and tried to get my head around this foreign game. It was weird and I am pretty sure I had no idea what was going on for the first half of the game but I got the hang of it and ended up coming last! Yay!
In the morning I got up and changed hotels because I heard a place called Hotel Oriental was amazing and it was only for one night. It was lovely with hammocks and a mango juice on arrival. I instantly met a guy from Nottingham and we decided to go into the town for a stroll about together. I swear to god we were the only tourists there, we did not see one other in the entire time. It was super sticky, stifling heat and so after lunch we decided to get a cab up to this place called the butterfly pool. Again, we were literally the only tourists there, just the owners hanging out in the bar. It didn´t make much difference to us however and we got straight into the pool, it was so refreshing and we literally stayed in the water the entire afternoon chatting about travelling, again, and the silly things that have happened to us or other people. The views were also stunning having a mountain top view of the town, river and surrounding forest. After about 4 hours of pruning we got out, had a weird mango and oreo milkshake? Don´t do it! and walked back down into the town. We got straight into the hammocks and read our books then I went out to dinner to this amazing little restaurant that was so simple but perfect, I even managed to try out my conversation Spanish on the owner.
The time had come to venture back into the jungle. I was picked up at my hotel and taken to the tour office. There I met a couple from New Zealand that were also taking the pampas tour. They had flown into Santa Cruz and had already done the Amboro National Park. I was heading there but after what they said about the journey and the fact that although it was beautiful, it´s not like I couldn´t have seen similar landscapes anywhere else around Bolivia. This got me thinking about my next steps and wondering whether I should take the 20-hour bumpy bus ride to see something I could see in other places. We got into separate 4 x 4s as our group was split and I joined 2 Irish couples who had met each other in La Paz. 2 Clares a Rob and Peter. They were really lovely and were both on around the world adventures. Clare and Rob coming to the end of theirs and Clare and Peter at the start having come from Cuba.
It took 3 hours to get into the Pampas and then we hopped onto a little motorised canoe to take us the last 10 minutes to our eco lodge. Already along the river, we saw loads of wildlife including Capybaras and birds, it was much less jungly than last time and much more wildlife orientated. Once we got to Mashaquipe Ecolodge we were given a classic Jungle lunch of rice beans meat etc and then we had a snooze in the hammocks until our afternoon adventure. I was sharing my lodge with a Swiss girl and a French girl and it was really nice to have a little group of girls in a room together as opposed to random people every day usually in groups or couples. Here we were all travelling alone all feeling the same things.
We hopped back into the boat around 3pm and chugged down the river in search of animal life. We were fairly successful seeing loads of different Herons, Caimans, millions of Capybaras a pair of Monkeys and some Pink Dolphins swimming down the river.They were all really beautiful and so interesting to watch. It was extremely hot, even when we were going along and because we had no shade we really felt it. At the end of the day, we got off of the boat and climbed up from the river to the river to the pampas. We walked along to see little pools of water were piranhas had been trapped due to the dry season reducing rivers to puddles. We stood and watch the sunset over the grassland and then walked back to the boat. It was dark by the time we got going down the river and we got our torches out to see if we could try and spot any caimans. There were loads lurking on the banks and under the trees and you could hear them sploshing into the water as you went past. When we got back we had a jungly dinner and then the girls and I sat outside watched huge fireflies from over the other side of the river buzzing in the trees. We thought they were fire sparks they were so big and bright. Like watching the jungle sparkle at night.
After breakfast the next day, we set out early to go Anaconda searching. Now, it was highly unlikely that we were actually going to see one because it is dry season but we went for it anyway in spite of the fact that the last one the guides saw was over a month ago. We got off of the boat in the same place we did the night before and with our wellies and long trousers we headed into the tall grasses. Our guide had a stick and was beating the pathway and we were in charge of pulling the grasses apart and looking at the bases for anacondas. One of the Clares was scared of snakes so she walked along side us on the road keeping an eye out and the rest of us plunged in. We went over grassland, fields, rivers, ponds and roads and we saw nothing, not that I was expecting to , apart from a huge caiman just chilling in a muddy puddle. We were told he had just eaten which is why his stomach was so full and he was so docile. They feed one and then rest and digest for 3 months. What a life! Obviously, a couple of caiman selfies were taken and then we cracked on. After about 3 and a half hours and a wade up to the top of my boots in a pond we decided to head back defeated, I had still had an epic time though and really enjoyed hunting through the tall grasses.
After lunch we had yet another snooze, you´re never too far away from a nap around here and then we headed out on the activity that I was most excited about Piranha Fishing! We got to our spot along the banks and our guide started chopping up some meat on the side of the bat. We used crabbing lines and hooks and were shown instantly how it was done by our guide pulling a little catfish out of the water. Like children we ran to the edge, completely ignoring the fact that caiman were surrounding us and enthusiastically started whipping our hooks into the water. You could feel hundreds of bites instantly but your reflexes had to be had to be lightning fast to actually bag one. We tried again and again, running back to get more meat. The clouds were looking very dark and ominous and we were all desperate to try and catch a fish before we got rained off. Clare managed to catch a Piranha and a Sardine and the guide cought another, bigger catfish and loads of piranhas. Peter managed to catch a teeny weeny fish that he accidentally dragged out of the water and Rob caught a stick, I caught nothing sadly. Suddenly as I was about to hook more meat on the heavens opened. Now, when it rains in the jungle, it bloody well rains. I stupidly hadn´t brought anything waterproof as my last experience of the jungle was beyond boiling and I sat at the back of the boat, my sexy canvas hat getting soggier and droopier and my top half looking like it was trying out for the jungle wet T-Shirt competition. It was freezing and I had already felt a cold coming on. How did I manage to get a cold in the jungle for goodness sake?
Anyway, about half an hour on the boat being battered by the rain and everyone else huddled under waterproofs and plastic ponchos, we ran off to our lodges, me grabbing a coca tea on the way. I had to strip and hang my clothes up, willing for them to dry before the morning as I had brought no other clothes apart from some shorts and in this humid climate you don´t want to be wearing those on the river. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to dry off, not being able to have a warm shower as those don´t exist in the jungle curled up in a blanket reading. When I went over to dinner Clare and Rob were already there, also wrapped up in blankets drinking coffee. After dinner, we chatted for ages over warm cans of beer by the dodgy lighting that kept flickering on and off. Lovely evening all that was missing was a game of cards or Monopoly.
For our last excursion the next day we went to see if we could find some more monkeys and some black caiman. We went down the other end of the river this time and immediately saw loads of caimans. They were all sunbathing on the banks or resting under the trees. On our way down we saw 2 toucans flying over which was really cool and we also saw a few black caimans. These are much bigger than the other ones and also rarer. We didn´t see any monkeys but we had a lovely sail down and back up the river and I even had a sneaky snooze along the way. We came back for lunch and had yet another snooze in the hammock, I was ill! Everyone almost left without me as I was sleeping so long and I literally had to run down the bank as they were jetting off! It took us a good few hours to get back again, then a quick stop off at the tour office and over to the hilariously tiny airport. Clare, Peter and I were conveniently seated on the back row of the plane so we could chat and after the journey, we shared a cab from the airport and I said goodbye to them as I came back to my lovely homey Hostal Milenio where I found I had my own room!
On Friday, day 50, I really knew I had a cold and didn´t feel fabulous. I had a lie in and then set off to do some errands. Laundry, postcard buying and writing and I tried to find another tour operator that would allow me to do another trek, however, loneliness discrimination set in and if they couldn´t find anyone else to come with me it was going to cost double! In the evening I found an internet cafe to do some writing and had dinner being heading back to sleep ready for my tour to Chacaltaya and Valle de la Luna tomorrow! A quiet day much needed.
I feel no less British and proud of my country, however, I have found myself slipping into the everyday life and culture of the place and becoming more and more at home here. Everyone has their wobbly moments but you find yourself asking, ´Could I live here?' `Could I emigrate to somewhere else in the world?', the adventures open up possibilities that you never thought you would even consider, it gives you a taste for culture and wanting to ´do as the locals do´ and questioning some of the stuff that you do at home but it never takes away your identity or nationality. I am still properly British, just maybe with a couple of lifestyle changes and experiences behind me.
Words and Images by Chloe Hayes