Current Location - La Paz, Bolivia
"Quick, its getting away, someone grab the Anaconda!! Rick, you're closest, please...grab the Anaconda before it gets away" - Actual quote from our guide in the Amazon, referring to the 8 foot constrictor snake he wanted me to catch (and yes, I did catch it).
We here at Travelhead Industries™ know that you have choices when it comes to your travel journal updates, and we're glad you've chosen us, which is why we've packed this entry with a lot of new journaltastic features. You may have noticed one of them in the fresh new look of the header. People were writing to me, saying that although the current country was listed, they really didn't know quite where that was. Fair enough, before I started planning my trip I really had no clue of geography. In fact, when someone told me of a tour they once did in Bolivia, I thought that was in Western Europe. I mean, it would make sense. Slovakia, Romania, Albania, Bosnia, Bolivia. It just sort of fits, doesn't it? But no, its here in South America, nestled between Peru and Brazil, smack dab in the middle of the continent. And it Rocks. More on that later. The other newly added feature is the highly anticipated release of the Tour de Beers. I have made it a mission to try at least one of each type of national beer I can while in a country, and have kept track. Hence... http://www.travelhead.com/trip/beers.htm
But we know its not just about shnazzy features, you need quality content as well, and this entry is sure to please. Its jam packed with death-defying high-speed adventures, large celebrations, as well as amazing treks through the Amazon and at least 3 nights of obligatory post-5am drunkenness. And its a double-whammy - because I didn't have internet connections in the Amazon, you've got two weeks worth of fun, packed in to one email. That means twice the normally lengthy length.
So without further adieu, back to Bolivia. Yes, another undiscovered gem of a country that just totally rocks. Before I came to Bolivia it was just a country that was in my way between Peru and Brazil. I'd have to get across it somehow. However, its a nice small land-locked country that has so many diverse attractions, I have decided to spend the rest of my time here, and won't be able to do half the things I really wanted to do here.
The first thing I did when I got here to the city of La Paz (pop 1.1 million) was went to go look in to a tour that a friend had told me about, called gravity tours. See, La Paz is the highest capitol in the world ,and one of the highest cities in Bolivia. To go to just about any other city in the country, it's going to be downhill. Someone got the bright yet crazy idea that as a way to tour the mountains, one could be driven to a high point, dropped off with a mountain bike, and ride at high speeds down the mountain. Yep, sounds like my cup of tea.
I decided to spend a day heading to the witches market with some friends from my hotel. The witches market is a place where you can buy potions, offerings, magical items and other neat things, or simply have a spell cast on you by the witches there. In case you think it is a joke, it is not. The witches market sells everything from goat horn powder to llama fetuses to magic beans, as well as all manner of dried flowers or herbs. Anything you might need to make a potion. And the ladies that work the shops are able to cast spells on you, and the locals all claim that they work. Not the kind that turn you in to a toad, but more the kind that bring you success in business, or fortune in love. Spells like that. It was a neat market to walk around in, very Harry Potteresque.
Afterwards, we headed to the Coca museum, which illustrates the history of the Coca leaf, and its impact on societies throughout the ages. Actually rather interesting. People in South America have been chewing the Coca leaf for centuries without problem, but it wasn't until it was used to create Cocaine has it actually become a problem. Bolivia and Colombia take a lot of slack from the rest of the world for producing these leaves, when in fact as the museum pointed out, it wasn't until western civilization intervened did it actually become an epidemic.
Later, I went to go look for a belt, but found that due to the odd set up of Bolivian markets (and this holds true for most Latin American countries) I was not able to get one. You see, my hotel is near the hat/visor and radio/binoculars market. This whole town is filled with thousands of vendors selling hundreds of items. But they're all segregated. See, all the people selling hats and visors set up in one particular area. All in a row, all right next to each other, all selling the exact same hats and exact same visors at the exact same prices. If I wanted a hat or visor, I'd be in luck. But I wanted a belt. The belt market, unfortunately, happened to be on the opposite side of the city - a long walk under normal conditions, but as things were being set up for Gran Poder, it would have been nearly impossible. Even more amazing, is that there is a newspaper market. I looked around one morning for a newspaper for about half an hour, when finally I asked someone where I might find one. In a voice which stated I was an idiot for not knowing about the newspaper market, they pointed me to it. Finally, there it was, a tiny square with about 100 newspaper vendors packed in to it, all selling the same 6 newspapers at the same price. Heaven forbid someone on the other side of town might want a newspaper.
The night before Gran Poder, a guy from my hotel named Ben, and I went out to go check out some of the clubs. We first hit a place called Occupocio. Really cool bar, with good music, a good vibe and really great people. No tourists, just locals. We ended up talking to a number of different people at the bar, and at one point, the people I was talking to said they were headed to another club. I had assumed they were with the people Ben was talking to, but they werent, and being engrossed in our respective conversations, we decided to head our own ways for the night. My little group headed to a place called Dragonfly, which very eerily, was almost identical to the Dragonfly restrestaurant in Washington DC, in fact it had the identical logo. I doubt they're related, I think its more a case of someone copying the other. It was a rather posh and upscale place, with good music and a band later in the evening. Finally, my friends headed home at about 5:30, and I headed back to my hotel.
I got back to the hotel at a little after 5:30 and rang the bell for the night man to come unlock the door. After a minute I rang it again. Then again, then again. This is a very loud bell. It wakes up almost all the guests. I felt bad, but I am standing in a bit of a back alley way, locked out, and rather cold. I needed to get in. One more long ring, but nothing. The door requires a key on both sides so even guests cant get up to open it. I was irate. I walked back to the main road and hailed a cab and asked him to take me to any hotel open. He took me to a hotel on the opposite side of town, and dropped me off. I went in and asked for a room, and the guy said he was booked. I told him I was going to go look for another hotel. He stopped me and asked if I had any clue that Gran Poder was tomorrow. Yeah, why? Well, every hotel in La Paz is jammed booked, and what the heck am I doing looking for a hotel at 6am the morning of Gran Poder anyway. I explained the lockout situation. He asked if I had the number to my hotel, which I did and gave to him. This guy was so nice, he said I could sleep on the bench in his hotel lobby while he tried every 5 minutes to call my hotel, which he did. I finally woke up when I heard him explaining to someone he had one of their guests sleeping in his lobby. I walked out in to bright sunlight at 7:30am to the beginnings of a festival. Not what a semi-still-drunk, and semi-hungover person wants after an hour of not-so-good sleep on a wooden bench. I looked and felt beat up. I was afraid the polica were going to ask me if I had just been mugged - I looked like it. There was frantic activity going on all around me and all I want is my bed. Furthermore, all I wanted was a cab, but because of Gran Poder, half the streets were closed off, and there was no hope of that. After a 20 minute walk and nearly being crushed between 2 moving busses going in opposite directions (both touched me as they passed) I was in a bit of a foul mood arriving at the hotel. The owner was quite apologetic, but I really just wanted my bed. Turns out guests came home every half hour from 2pm onward (including Ben at 4am), and the night guy was flat out by the time I arrived at nearly 6.
Although I slept until noon, we were able to catch a fair amount of Gran Poder. It was an amazing festival, with a lot of truly amazing costumes on the people in the parade. The streets are filled with various vendors selling foods and crafts.
After dinner, we walked around the festival some more, and decided to head in to a local pub for just one beer. As a tourist, you stick out in these types of places, and often people want to talk to you and usually invite you to sit at their tables. Sometimes to learn about you, sometimes to practice their English, and sometimes both. Unfortunately, its usually the drunkest people that pull you in to their tables. This night was no exception. We were pulled by Miguel to his table with his 2 other friends. I don't think his 2 friends spoke more than 5 words each the entire time we were there, it was just Miguel, who had a tendency to forget what he said most of the time and repeat himself often. He was fun to talk to, but after our beer, we decided to leave. Miguel insisted he buy us another beer. We insisted we leave. He was very offended that we were not going to stay, especially now that he was buying. He assumed it was that we could only handle one beer each, and said we were chicken for not staying. In those exact words. As we said thanks again, and stood up, Miguel stood up as well, and tucked his hands under his armpits, and began to flap and cluck like a chicken. Loudly. All the tables around us were looking. Miguel was ignoring us as we said, "Listen, we just want to go", as he just kept on clucking and flapping. Finally, as we walked away, Miguel stopped clucking and thanked us for sitting with him and we left.
The next day Ben and I headed out for our tour with Gravity Tours. It really is an ingenious idea, and such a good one that its been copied by a number of different companies. Thus, it has been a little overdone, which I thought might sort of ruin it, but it really was one amazing tour.
The road that the tour goes along is the road from La Paz to Corioco and actually holds the distinction of being the worlds most dangerous road. It has gained that distinction by having more people die per mile per year than any other road in the world. And when you're on it, you can see why. This road is a single lane road that is cut in to the side of a steep mountain. About once a kilometer the road widens to 1.5 lanes for about 30 feet in whats called a "pop-out". You might this this is for passing, but no, its because traffic travels in both directions on this road. Which means that if a vehicles come at each other, one must back up to the last "pop out" area where it teeters on the edge and waits for the other to pass. Generally, when this happens, the parked vehicle has its outer wheels resting on the very edge of the cliff, or partly over the edge, while the other truck squeezes past and scrapes the side of the mountain. So, even these pop-outs aren't that big. Whats more, is the testosterone-filled truck drivers race up and down this mountain with no regard for what may be around the next blind corner. So quite often, these accidents occur when 2 speeding vehicles collide on a blind curve. Generally, any bus or truck that plummets down the side kills everyone on board. I dint think there have been any cases with survivors. In one such accident, a bus went over killing everyone on board, including the family of a man who was waiting at home. After he heard the news, he decided to spend the rest of his life standing on the corner, warning vehicles when it was safe to pass and when it wasn't with a large red/green paddle. News spread of his story and misfortune and truck and bus drivers who pass him usually give him 1B for his help.
And this is where the bike tour goes.
The road is quite steep as it winds down the mountain, and you can really get a decent bit of speed. Just about everyone starts out going rather slow, considering the sight of actually being able to see straight down over a cliff with no guard rails. But as your comfort level grows, you begin to really start moving fast. From time to time, you hit a rock in the road, which is going to usually make you slide out to one side or the other. Sometimes it makes you slide towards the cliff, and in one such occasion, I came within less than a foot of the edge. Nothing like that to get the old adrenalin pumping.
The whole day of riding lasted about 4 to 5 hours and was a truly incredible trip. The guides were excellent the bikes were top notch. As an avid bike rider, it was a thrill just to be on one of their Kona bikes, one of the best brands in the world.
The bike trip ended in Coroico, which was a small town on the way to the jungle of Rurrenabaque, so I decided to spend the night there and go on to the jungle the next day.
Corioco ended up being a very nice little town with a good climate. Rather warm in the day time, so we were able to use the pool at the hostal we were staying at. What a luxury. The bus to "Rurre" left Corioco at 2pm for its 14 hour journey. However, it left from the center of town, and our hotel was in the hills. It would have been a 15-20 minute walk, which is fine, but with all our heavy backpacks that can get tiring. We asked the hotel if they could drive us down in their SUV, an old beat up Nissan Patrol- a very cool truck if you ask me. When we arrived, the SUV was parked in the town square waiting to pick up people to take them up to the hotel. It was waiting unattended, unlocked and with the key in it. But at this hour of the day it was in the driveway of the hotel. We loaded up our bags and ourselves and waited for the driver. He didn't come and I went to the lobby and told him we were ready and needed to leave now to catch our 2pm bus. I got back in the truck and we waited some more. It was about this time that I noticed that the key to the truck was tied to the steering column with a shoelace. I reasoned that if I were to steal the truck and leave it in the town square where it was normally parked, it would be fine, as it normally sits there assumably with the key tied to it. The square was close, and the hotel would find it. So thats what I did. First, I went back and told the driver I was going to steal it and I'd leave it in the town sqare. Unless he came to drive us NOW. He told me not to, and said he'd be there soon. Oh well, you cant say I didn't warn him. To the shock of the other hotel guests, I actually stole the truck and drove it the 5 minutes to town. I left it right where I said I would. It was then I realized it had been over 6 months since I have driven any type of vehicle. Wow.
The road out of Coroico isnt isn't different than the road going in to it, that being the worlds most dangerous road. However, this time I was in a bus and not in control of my own destiny. Like all the other bus drivers, this one was going top speed. Its not about getting there quicker, its about having something to prove. Its about showing off as to how fast they can drive on this difficult road. It really is.
I had met some people in Corioco also going to Rurre and we headed together. The girl at the window would look our and give us periodic updates. Around the sharp turns, our long bus would have to cut very close to the edge, so as to not hit the mountain. Sticking her head out the window and looking straight down she would tell us that she could see the tire, and see there was no road beneath it. The road curves so sharply that the outside of the tandem tire sometimes is suspended over the edge. All the busses have these tandem tires for this reason, and they are all slightly shorter than average busses.
The rule of the road is that traffic coming uphill has the right of way. That means traffic going down goes on the outside (cliffside) and when two vehicles meet, the one coming downhill needs to reverse to the last pop-out. This happened a couple of times, one of which was a rather short pop-out, in which the rear wheels were at the very end of the pop-out. Being in the last seat in the bus, that meant that the part of the bus we were in was effectively hanging over the edge, and we could see straight down.
Besides the constant feeling of eminent death, the ride itself was rather senic. I guess if I had to become part of some countryside, this would be as pretty as any. As we dropped in elevation, the terrain changed to jungle just about dusk. The full-ish moon made it easy to watch things even as it was getting dark. A bus ride through the jungle is much like you might expect it to be. Lots of trees, a bumpy dirt road, huge banana leaves. Quite cool.
We arrived in Rurre at 6am, however not rested at all. The bumpiness of the ride kept us all up, which made the trip to Rurre a 2-day affair - one day to get there, and one to recover.
The next day, we found an agency that we could book a trek through the jungle with. It was a 3 day, 2 night tour, deep in to a part of the Amazon. After booking the tour, we decided to get some clothes at the used clothing stores to wear for the trek, then either re-donate or throw out depending on their condition. I opted for the jeans and white dress shirt, to try and mimic Michael Douglass from the movie "Romancing the Stone", also set in the jungle.
Rurre is a cool little jungle town, with about 10,000 people living there. There are 4 blocks which have paved streets, the rest being dirt. They do have phones, but they're expensive to use. They have electricity, and running water, and Rurre actually has its own television station (channel 4 in you're in Rurre) which makes sense as its too far from anywhere else to get other stations. It also has one bar popular with tourists called Moskkito, and scores of little bars popular with locals, most of which seem to be karaoke bars, oddly enough.
We decided to head to Moskkito for a few beers the night before our trek in to the jungle. While in the bar, I ended up meeting up with Fiona and Hiedi who I knew from my hotel in La Paz. I went over to say hi, but got so engrossed in the conversation that 8 beers later I was still there as my friends were leaving to return to the hotel. Another few beers later, we were being kicked out, and found ourselves thrown together with the other kicked-outees, which was good as we found it easier to form a game plan with others who didnt want to go home. We were all allowed to purchase one beer to go, so we decided to walk down to the river to see if we could find anything going on. As we got there, I noticed 3 guys who seemed to be in some sort of friendly argument, sitting around a table on their porch. I dared Fiona and Hiedi Heidi sit and drink with them. Then came a counter dare of sorts. They were booked on a trek with the same company, but to a different part of the jungle. Also a 3 day trek, and the same price. If they went to go drink with the men, I would have to switch treks and go on theirs. The 3 of us had the same demented sense of humor and it would be fun to all go together. So I agreed and we went over to 3 strangers and started talking. They thought we were coming to break up the argument, but were happy when we told them we just wanted to hang out. They were drunk on some sort of grain alcohol, which they gave us some of and nearly made me sick. They also had mouths packed with Coca leaves which would occasionally spittle out on us as they spoke. After about an hour, I walked the girls home and went back to my hotel at about 5am, knowing I'd need to get up in about 2 hours for a jungle trek.
Within about 10 minutes, we saw a crocodile on the side of the river. Then another one, then a bigger one, then a bunch of them. The river is only about 20 feet wide at its widest point, so you're never really more than 10 feet from these amazing animals. It got to the point where crocodiles were about as common as stray dogs, and we didnt turn to look at them any more. At one point, Rambo slowed down and neared the shore. He glided the boat very gently toward a crocodile resting on the waters edge. The boat hit dirt and stopped. We were inches from the crocodile and it didnt move. It didn't even blink. I was sure this was a plastic crocodile that all the drivers stopped near. So being the guy in the front of the boat closest to the croc, I put an index finger over the edge of boat and touched it ever so softly on its hind leg. The instant my fingertip came in contact with its skin, it thrashed a quick 180, and darted back in the water. I guess it was real.
Further on down the river, we saw these tiny little yellow and black moneys, and pulled in for a closer look. The monkeys also came down near the boat for a closer look. We got out some bananas and they went wild. They had no problems jumping right in to the boat, running over people, and up your arms to eat the bananas right out of your hands. Before long, there were about 30-40 of these monkeys running around trying to get our food. Throughout the rest of the trip, we saw all sorts of amazing animals like turtles, blue and yellow Macaws flying from tree to tree, Storks, Birds of Paradise which are colorful mohawked birds, oh and more crocodiles.
We made it to our camp by about 4pm, and got all set up. The cooks were making dinner, and giving the scraps to Pedro, the fat pet crocodile that lived on the shore. He just sat there waiting for food to be thrown from the kitchen area, occasionally slinking back in to the river for a swim.
That night, after dinner, we went out to look for baby crocs. Crocs are easy to find at night with a flashlight as their eyes light up bright orange. We found a little patch with hundreds of tiny orange lights and Rambo parked the boat and crept on shore. He was swift enough to grab 2 of them at the same time and brought them in the boat for us to see. They were both about a foot and a half long, and provided we washed our hands thouroughly with the river water, we were allowed to hold them if we wanted to. Amazing animals, and Rambo told us all about how they live and breed and grow, while showing us how to identify different crocs. Then he showed us a trick by where you can lay a croc on its back, rub its belly and it will fall asleep in to a coma-like state. It was very strange.
On the way back, taking the boat back to camp, it started to rain. We were already dirty, and sweaty and the rain was actually what we needed. In fact, when we talked about the trip afterwards, it was that moment that it started raining that was all of our favorites. It was just a magical moment. Cruising along on a boat in the Amazon, while a jungle rain poured over us. Amazing.
We again reached the point where the dolphins were, and jumped out in hopes they'd come out to play. No dice. But it was fun to swim in the rain. As dirty as we were, we just all jumped right out of the boat in the clothes we were wearing.
After lunch, we headed out to do some fishing to try to catch some dinner - Piranha. Rambo took us to a good spot where he knew a lot of piranhas would be. We were all a little queasy when we found it was about 50 feet from the place we had been swimming twice. We ended up catching 6 piranhas for the day. They're really not that big, in fact only about 6-8 inches long. But they do have massive teeth, and in a pack can kill and eat an animal (or person) in no time.
We headed back to Moskkito bar for a little bit, and woudn't you know, ended up being a kicked-outee at 3am again. This time it was a Friday, and the karaoke bars were open late. Heidi, Fiona and I headed to one, and ended up staying until about 7am. I decided it was time to leave, when I counted the number of people at the bar to be 10 including us. 6 of the other 7 were fast asleep with heads on the table. That left us and the guy talking to us as the only people awake in the bar, besides the bartenderette.
We headed back to the hotel and getting up at 11am for my flight was not an easy task.
I was much happier to be taking a flight rather than a bus. Until I saw the plane. It looked like the 1950's planes in the Indiana Jones movies. But it was an hour flight as opposed to the 17 hours to La Paz by deathbus. I could take an hour. Only 10 minutes of the flight were hairy when this 20 passenger plane went over the mountains of the Andes and the airstreams from the mountains tossed the plane around like a toy.
But I will be back to Bolivia some day, and would highly recommend it as a place to visit. Bolivia is home to some of the most amazing parts of the Amazon jungle, it also has amazing lakes (Titicaca), some of the most breathtaking salt flats in the world, large cities, rural towns, mining towns, ancient Inca ruins, hiking, mountaineering (highest mountains in all of South America), trekking, biking, and despite being landlocked, the tropical paradise of Santa Cruz where I have a 3-day stop over. And it has even more than that. Yes, Bolivia rocks.