Monday June 25, 2001
Arriving in La Paz at night, I couldn't enjoy the view of the city from the mountain plain above. Although it’s hard to tell at night, it looks as though La Paz is cleaner than Lima. I’m staying at the Hostal Republica. \\$20/night for a bare, but pleasant room. I notice the bathroom shower has the electric heater in the shower head, but without the old frankenstein switch to turn it on and off.
I went out and had my first Bolivian meal at a restaurant near the hotel. The restaurant has a wood and charcoal fueled broiler at the door, which is like a garage door. They cook here and the smoke just escapes outside. For 6 Bolivianos (6.6 to a dollar), I had a kind of mixed grill – several types of meat, a fried plantain, some kind of vegetable, a potato, and something like grits but with cheese mixed in. Very good and very filling.
Wednesdy June 27, 2001
Yesterday was my day to explore La Paz and get acclimated to the altitude. The city sits in a deep basin with the canyon walls climbing up around the city. So anywhere one walks, it’s either steeply uphill or downhill. I visited the four museums: del Oro, Casa de Murillo, del Littoral, and Costumbrista Juan de Vargas. Here I learned from the guide that Bolivia is approximately 60% indian, maybe 30% Aymara. Although I haven’t gotten out of La Paz yet, I think the 60% figure must be low. Almost everyone here looks native indian.
Yesterday at noon, everyone came to a screeching stop while the Bolivian national anthem was played. In Plaza de Murillo there were about a hundred soldiers in dress uniforms of various sorts. I later learned that the Brazilian president was visiting the city.
At lunchtime I stopped in a very crowded market and had their almuerzo ( a set lunch) for 4 Bs. With these lunches, the soup is almost enough, but then they proceed with serving a full meal after. In the late afternoon, I tried my first empanada, which was very good. For dinner, I ate light, a hamburquesa and papas fritas (french fries) from a street vendor for 3 Bs.
Today I caught a local bus to Valle de la Luna (1.5Bs). But I wasn’t able to find a trail to walk through the interesting rock formations. This area is not very large anyway, and is surrounded by homes and buildings. I was also not able to figure out how to catch a bus at this place to go to Muela del Diablo. I think I would’ve had to make a couple of bus changes and I finally just gave up on the idea, thinking there wouldn’t be time. So I rode a micro back to Calacota. Here I wandered a bit and eventually found an interesting fruit and vegetable market. It was here that I was able to get a picture of the old Bolivian woman that had such a remarkable face.
Back in La Paz, I made my way toward the Mercado Negro and roamed about. I had a good almuerza for 6 Bs – chicken, rice, potato and of course it was preceded by a delicious bowl of soup. For dinner, I again roamed the streets looking for a decent restaurant. I haven’t figured out how to tell a good Bolivian restaurant from a bad one; they all look a little seedy to me. Eventually I stopped and had chicken at a place called Tommy’s. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how the Bolivians butcher their chicken. Always there’s meat and bones, but often it’s hard to figure out what part of the chicken it came from.
From the travel assistant at the desk of the hotel I learned that the roads to Tiahuanaco are closed by Aymara protests.
I find the Bolivians do not negotiate as much as other south Americans. Maybe it’s because everything starts so cheap. But a typical bargain here is when you’ve negotiated a price down 10%.
Today while in the market a street dog almost attacked me. At just the last moment I saw it lunge at me and I could literally feel his nose hit my sleeve and hear the snap of its jaws. It happened so fast that I didn’t have time to be frightened. But thinking back, I’m very lucky I wasn’t bitten. I think rabies shots anywhere would be unpleasant. But I’m quite sure I wouldn’t want rabies treatment in Bolivia.
Also today, there was a big brouhaha on my bus ride back from Calacota. The girl that sat next to me was getting off the bus, but the bus driver would not completely stop. Somehow, she caught a sleeve, slipped and almost fell under the still moving, now accelerating bus. I hollered at the bus driver as did many others. She was lucky to not be hurt, but the police did arrive and there was much discussion which I couldn’t understand.
What La Paz seems to lack is outdoor cafes. I’d love to sit outside in the sunshine and enjoy a drink and people watch. But there are almost none to be found.
Thursday June 28, 2001
Today was an excellent day. After the disappointment with Valle de la Luna, I was a bit leary about trying to get to the tougher location of Valle de las Animas, where I wanted to hike all day. Not so much getting there, but the uncertainty about getting back – when the last bus runs, etc. So I paid for a driver/guide as the woman at the hotel suggested. To my surprise, the guide was an attractive, young Bolivian woman named Marynela. In the four hours or so we were together, we talked about almost everything, including love and relationships and it seems like we are fast friends. She reminded me of an ex-girlfriend - with her dark hair and the way we became instant friends.
I told her I was interested in hiring an Aymara guide and going to interview the Aymara chiefs at Tiahuanaco. She thinks this would be very dangerous, but said she would consider making the trip.
After our hike, I went to explore the Mercado de Hechiceria. This is the medicine market, which is so interesting with the dried llama fetuses, reptile parts, etc. I could buy a dried llama fetus for 15Bs. But no way. Some of these stalls are so interesting that I’d love to take pictures, but no one will agree to let me and I sense that it would not be safe to just pull out the camera and shoot. I did take a shot or two with my telephoto, but I’m not optimistic about these being good.
While shopping around, I bought Cheryl a bracelet and Ann a pair of thick alpaca socks.
Friday June 29, 2001
The lady at the hotel tells me that if I’m willing to wait for a few days, she knows an Aymara man that would take me to Tiahuanaco, but that we would have to go by bike. But since there’s really nothing else here in La Paz that I want to do for 2 or 3 days, I decided to take a bus to Cochabamba.
It’s a beautiful ride. I could see the moon rising over the Andes. Many places have much snow, some a little. We passed through many interesting looking villages and settlements. I watched the village names and signs with elevations as we traveled – Pango 2002m, Sayari 4102m. Most of the structures here are made of mud bricks, but some are stone with thatch roofs. Along the highway, there are also many little stone memorials with crosses on top for people that have died in highway accidents. Traffic safety here is notoriously bad.
Sunday July 1, 2001
The last couple of days have been interesting. Yesterday I hired a car and driver to take me to Inca Rackay. The drive up was on a very rough, narrow mountain road. The driver had to stop and ask many people along the way to help him to find it. When we did find it, I wasn’t impressed.
On the way back down, I had the driver (Elio) go ahead and wait along the road for me. This way, I could walk, explore and enjoy the area and take photos. As I walked, I encountered a shepherd woman and girl with a flock of sheep. The sheep are marked with a red dye on the back. As we drove here, I saw this on virtually every animal. Sometimes only on the head, sometimes on the back, sometimes on the belly. I saw red markings on sheep, goats, cows, even donkeys.
Today we went to Incallajta, a site of pre-incan ruins. Lonely Planet describes these as the Machu Picchu of Bolivia. This is absolutely ridiculous and does neither site justice. With that kind of expectation, no one would be impressed by what they see at Incallajta. Not a bad set of ruins, but expectations were much too high. Apparently, not a lot is known about these ruins, but they’re thought to be more than a thousand years old.
On the way there we had to drive through about five rivers that crossed the roads, one was quite deep. We got stuck in this river on the way out. When I opened the door to get out to help push, water came up over and into the car. By moving large stones in the river bed we were able to get the car out.
During the drive out, I asked Elio which are the best cars in Bolivia. He told me Toyota, Ford, and Hundai.
Elio also told me about the El Tuna, a cactus that is supposedly very delicious to eat. We stopped and he showed me a white insect that infests it. When this insect is crushed, it makes a pink pastel color that is what is used to color the sheep.
Monday July 2, 2001
Today I went around to several small villages outside of Cochabamba searching for pottery (Huayculi) and weavings (Rio Villera). Along the way, we had lunch in Cliza. We also stopped in Arani and Tatora. The pottery was unimpressive and few weavings were to be found. In both villages, there were no markets today, so we went from home to home looking at items that the families still had on hand. Visiting yesterday would’ve been a better idea, as the markets here are on Sunday.
The hotel I’m staying at in Cochabamba is the noisiest place I’ve ever stayed. Despite being on the 6th floor, I think I can hear every sound from the street. And very early in the morning there is an awful sound of clanging that seems to track the speed of the vehicle, which I can tell by the sound of the roar of the engine. Eventually, I learned what this was. The trucks that carry small propane cylinders has a rider in the back that handles the cylinders. He hits the cylinders with a wrench to alert people on the street that they’re coming so anyone interested in buying the gas can flag the truck down. But the racket this makes is very annoying.
I bought an airline ticket for Tarija for tomorrow (\\$79). There is not airport at Tupiza, where I want to go, so I’ll have to find transportation from Tarija to Tupiza after I get there. There is a train that runs from Oruro to Tupiza, but that only runs on Friday.
I’m sitting in a little café off the Plaza 14 de Septembre having the first really good coffee I’ve had so far on this trip. It’s ironic that Bolivia grows some very fine coffee but it’s so difficult to get a cup of brewed coffee. Most coffee here is prepared from instant.
There is some sort of drink that is sold by street vendors everywhere here. It looks like tea that is brewed in the sun, but is made by soaking some sort of nut in a glass of water. When sold “to go”, the vendor pours the glass into a plastic bag, inserts a straw, then ties the bag shut around the straw. Much later in my trip, I learned that the “nut” is not a nut at all, but is a dried peach. So the drink is really like a peach tea.
As I wandered Cochabamba, I discovered a tailor in a stall in a marketplace. So I ordered a pair of tailor made pants for 85Bs. I also bought a leather jacket for 320Bs, a weaving for 23Bs, and a wood inlay picture for 30Bs.
Wednesday July 4
The Cochabamba airport is a small, modern facility with a few shops and restaurants. As I sat in the restaurant waiting for my flight, a small earthquake struck, lasting for about 20 to 30 seconds.
Last night, I tried on my new tailor made pants and really liked them. Almost wish I had ordered two.
I’d have to say there are fewer English speaking people in Bolivia than I’ve encountered in other S. American countries I’ve visited. Or perhaps the Bolivians are not as forward and/or friendly. My hunch is that Bolivians are more reserved and more rarely speak English. It’s possible that less English is spoken here as a result of less exposure to it. I think tourism isn’t as well developed here as it is in Peru, for instance.
In the larger cities like La Paz and Cochabamba it is difficult to tell about building construction. But in the rural towns and villages, virtually every house and building is made of mud bricks. Sometimes mud or stucco covers the outside. Most often there are no beams or other support to reinforce the walls. Even when real bricks are used in construction, the workmanship is so poor as to look as if anyone off the street had done the brickwork. It is also sometimes interesting to see upper levels of an unfinished multi-story building in which reinforcements are used. Many times I have seen unsawn, crookeb poles used.
In most rurual villages there isn’t paving for the streets. Within the villages the streets are paved with stones. A typical pattern is sometimes used, three roughly equally spaced parallel rows of stones are set in the direction of the road. Between these rows of stone, other stones are set randomly.
Thursday July 5, 2001
Tarija was a nice tranquil town. The Hostal Conastera was as nice a place to stay for \\$20 as one could imagine. The breakfast (included for this rate) was as good as any I had while in Bolivia. There were many kinds of fresh fruits as well as breads, a sweet bread and some kind of crepe filled with strawberries. Also cold cereal (an interesting mix) with milk.
Upon arriving, I met an American ex-patriot that plays music in local restaurants. I also met Carlos from Spain. Carlos was on his way to La Paz and was worried about the effects of the altitude, so I gave him my altitude medicine which I hadn’t used.
I wasn’t able to find a convenient way to get to Tupiza, except the overnight bus. So I changed plans and flew to Sucre. While aimlessly wandering the streets there, I happened to run into Carlos. So we went and had a cold drink and I told him about the earthquake in Cochabamba. He asked the waiter about it, who said that it was in the newspaper. It turns out the earthquake was not so little, being 6.3 on the Richter scale. So I got a copy of the paper as a souvenir.
Saturday July 7, 2001
Yesterday I caught a bus and went to La Glorieta, a mansion south of Sucre. Kind of a strange place – nothing special here. I also sat in the Plaza 25 de Mayo and photographed people with my telephoto lens. The people are so bashful about cameras that this seems to be the only way to get away with it.
Often, I see whole families, each with a bundle on their back, wrapped in colorful blankets. They seem to carry everything they own on their back. Sometimes they’re stopped right on the sidewalk preparing or eating their lunch. All the women have two very long pigtails, down to their waist or lower. The poor, homeless family members don’t even have shoes, but only open-toed sandals on their feet. Their feet look very beat up.
The cultural groups seem to be discernible by the type of hat they wear. There are so many different kinds of hats. The most common is the bowler. But there is also a straw hat with colorful band and flat brim. Then there is one that looks like what Zeppo Marx would wear. And much more rarely, there is the hat style that evolved from the shape of a conquistador’s helmet.
Sunday July 8, 2001
I think there is more begging in Sucre than in other Bolivian cities I’ve been in. Mothers and children sit outside the more expensive restaurants and beg as customers come and go. The bolder ones enter some of the restaurants and beg while people are eating. Sometimes children will come in to sell little candies for donations. Last night I had pizza and divided up the last slice for two children that were sitting outside.
Yesterday I caught a bus to Yotalla. There was nothing going on in this quiet little town. I had lunch here and returned to Sucre in the afternoon.
The last couple of days I’ve had an American style breakfast of eggs, bread, and coffee at a place called Pencos.
I went to Tarabuco today by bus. It was about a 2 hr. ride. There was a teeming market here. I bought two colorful cloths that I think can be used for tablecloths. These are the same as those sold by street vendors in Sucre, except they are much more nicely presented and much cleaner. I also bought a large Jal’q weaving – very expensive at \\$60. This is my prized possession from my trip so far. It’s said that these take 2 to 3 months to weave by hand.
On the way back from Tarabuco, I sat next to Isabella from Belgium. We had a really nice conversation and I wish I’d gotten her email address. Isabella, if you’re reading this, drop me a line.
Monday July 9, 2001
I learned today that the Sucre airport is closed. And the trains haven’t been running here in who knows how long. And I came here thinking it’d be easy to get to other places from here. Sheesh. It’s a 12 hour bus ride to Cochabamba or a 16 hour bus ride to Santa Cruz. I opted for the shorter bus ride.
Tuesday July 10, 2001
My last afternoon in Sucre yesterday was spent in the Plaza de Mayo taking photos clandestinely. A woman and her son sat next to me and eventually I struck up a conversation with her – such as it could be since she didn’t speak English. Her name is Yolanda. I think she was flirtatious and enjoyed thinking she was being flirted with too. Not an unattractive woman, but dressed in a shade of purple that wasn’t something I found appealing. Like many latin countries, the women dress pretty provocatively. But they’re so Catholic, I think they’re sexually repressed. I’ve got a hunch that teenage rebellion to these mores is on its way to Bolivia.
The bus ride to Cochabamba was interesting in its ways. Before we even left, a man was horrendously berating another young man – probably his son. I heard “El Stupido” more times than I counted. Apparently, the young man – probably 20 or so, had forgotten something the man had told him to pack, because later a cab caught up to the bus and something was handed up through the window. Later in the ride, the luggage boy for the bus came back into the bus and a large argument ensued between him and the people standing and lying in the aisles. I never did figure out what was happening, but finally one young man handed him a little bit of money and he went away.
The road from Sucre to Cochabamba was all dirt, very slow going in the mountains. It was my first opportunity to see the night sky away from the city. The milky way was clearly visible.
Now I’m back in La Plaz at the Hostal Republica, listening to CD’s and drinking a bottle of Bolivian wine. I did call Marynela as I promised her I would when I returned. But we weren’t able to arrange to get together again.
The lady at the hotel desk says the Aymara are now convening a meeting in La Paz. As we were talking, an Englishman came in quite shaken up. Apparently, he had been confronted by several Aymara in the Prado and they had demanded money from him as a “tax”.
The most exciting thing of this nature that’s happened to me is that as I went through the market, a man pulled out a Policia Nationale ID and told me he needed to take me to a hotel for some questions. I told him that if he wanted to speak with me, he’d have to take me to the police station. And without waiting for a response, I turned and walked away. It is a scam that’s described in the Lonely Planet. Also, a couple of Americans had told me how one of them had been robbed in the same way. I refuse to be intimidated by these kinds of actions.
This morning, I went out for a walk from the Hotel Republica and quickly discovered a dirt road into a poor section of town that overlooked the city, affording the chance to photograph the poverty and high rises in the same shot.
Wednesday July 11, 2001
I finally got to Tiahuanaco today. Supposedly, the road to the ruins was opened yesterday. There was a large army emcampment at Laja and soldiers sporadically positioned along the road. The only other sign of an uprising or strike here were places where large stones were scattered – the Aymara tactic for stopping traffic to impose their taxes.
I think Tiahuanaco is the only place not overly hyped in the Lonely Planet guide. Of all the LP’s I’ve read, the one on Bolivia is the least accurate. Although Tiahuanaco is largely devoid of relics, it is still a fascinating place. Although the LP says that Incallajta is the Machu Picchu of Bolivia, if there is such a thing, it would have to be Tiahuanaco. Although really, such comparisons do neither place justice. Nothing compares to Machu Picchu and expecting any other place to compare to it only falsely raises expectations. Our guide here was well informed and clearly very interested in the subject matter. She gave good explanations of the objects and culture here.
A couple of interesting things: the Tiahuanacans successfully practiced trepanning – surgery on the skull. Human skulls have been found with holes that have healed. Also, the elite class practice a form of intentional deformation of the skull by wrapping a tight band around the head. Doing so from the time of birth makes the skull very oblong – about twice the length of an average human skull. In the museum nearby, several of these skulls are on display and they look very bizarre, reminescent of egyptian images I've seen.
The Aymara were direct descendants of the Tiahuanacans and its believed that they still speak a closely related language. Our guide says that there are several English language words that came directly from the Tiahuanacan language. Also, many of the faces carved in stone show distinctly Asian features, so it is believed that these people had some kind of interaction with Asian people. Tiahuanaco is thought to be the birthplace of civilization in the Americas.
After returning to La Paz, I wandered through the medicine market again. By buying little items I was able to take some photographs.
Saturday July 14, 2001
I’m writing this in the morning before breakfast. It’s another beautiful day, with clear blue sky.
Finally the trek! We got a late start yesterday, but it was so good to have the hike started. In the group is Abraham, our Aymara guide, a very nice guy that speaks pretty good English. There is also Eva who is living in Bolivia but is from Germany. Martin, her cousin, is visiting from Germany. There is also Louiza and Chris, from England.
We started the hike at about 4700m, then climbed up to Abra Chucura pass at about 4900m. From there, much of our first day’s hike was downhill to about 3200m where we camped at Challapompa. The scenery was fantastic. At the high pass it was very barren, gray and brown, with snow visible on the mountains surrounding us. As we descended, things were in constant change. Snow capped peaks at first, then eventually a little green and trees. Eventually we reached a point where there were some ferns.
We passed through shepherd villages and past homes made of stone with thatch rooves. There were quite a few llamas, a lot of sheep, and some cows, donkeys and even horses. This is an area that does not seem aimed at tourists. There were few places where soft drink or food could be purchased and these were only found at the places where we stopped for lunch and camp. Our lunch stop was at a village called Achuta. We were at first amused that there was a soccer field here, because we could only see a few homes. But this village of stone huts was strung through a long, thin valley. We followed a trail through it that was lined with stone walls. It’s a beautiful, but stark place.
We arrived at our campsite just as darkness fell. We camped beside a roaring river cascading down out of the mountains. There is a precarious bridge across the river and many stone and thatch huts around us.
As we waited for dinner to be cooked, we had a glorious view of the sky of the southern hemisphere. We speculated on which constellation was the southern cross. We also saw a couple of falling stars and the milky way was very clearly lined across the sky. We didn’t get dinner until 8:00 and we were all quite cold by then, and tired and hungry. But we had cocoa, and coca tea, and coffee to warm us. And when dinner was finally served, it was quite good, though we were eating it while sitting on our sleeping pads spread on the ground.
Now it’s evening – we continued the descent down through more tropical jungle type environment today. As we passed wild flowers, I’d pick them and mount them on my hat until by the time we stopped for lunch my whole hat was ringed with many different kinds of colorful flowers. The others enjoyed this and Eva took a picture.
I think our cook and porter are not professional trekkers. Many times we have passed Victor and Jose and it really looks as though they are struggling. Abraham himself takes a slow pace and sometimes seems to be hurting. In fact, the trek is taking its toll on everyone. Tonight, as we wait for dinner we all felt our aches and pains. The hike today was incessantly down until the legs would tremble with each next step down. I’m thankful for strong legs. But the other tough aspect is the many loose stones on the trail, making footing tough. I asked Abraham if anyone had ever been hurt while hiking with him and he said no. But I could see where it would easily happen. In fact, in Achuta there had been a sign posted for two missing people. I tried to ask Abraham if he could tell me what most of the local people think had happened to them, but he either didn’t understand or didn’t want to talk about it.
We passed many wild strawberries near the trail. Also, in one place there were wild raspberries. At lunch, I pulled a dark-eyed susan from the bill of my hat and asked Abraham whether kids in Bolivia play the “she loves me, she loves me not” game. He said they do, and Eva said they do in Germany also.
It’s interesting listening to a conversation between Martin and Abraham. Neither one speak English as their native language, but this is the only common language they share, so both struggle to find the words to express their thoughts.
Sunday July 15, 2001
After lunch yesterday, we climbed out of the valley and approached our second campsite. As we climbed in elevation I began to remove the flowers from my hat and dedicated them to the special people I’ve known, leaving them in various places along the trail. So there are a few flowers with views there.
Now we’re in Chairo and the trek is done. We’re waiting for a Camione to take us to Yalosa. However, there are many other people waiting here also, probably waiting for the same truck.
Bolivia is all dirt, rocks, and poverty. Then beautiful mountains. On the road out of Coroico, we passed the so-called Rio Selva Resort. Here Bolivian people were dancing to music in the dirt outside of a building. Reasonably well dressed people, and people walking the dirt road to get here, only to dance in a dusty field.
The road from Coroico to La Paz is reported by the World Bank as the most dangerous in the world. Much of my ride back from Coroico was done in the dark so was hard to appreciate the dangers. But from Chairo to Yalosa I was on the back of a pickup truck with 22 other people, me hanging over the rail looking down sheer cliff to the river below. The road was so narrow and in such bad shape with deep ravines and holes, that the truck would sway so far to one side I thought it would roll over. When it swayed to my side, I could look down the sheer cliff hundreds of feet.
From Coroico, Abraham arranged for me to sit in the front seat so I could see. I’m probably lucky that it was dark for much of the ride. But I could see enough to know the danger. And it was touching to see the wife and young daughter of the driver waving goodbye as we got into the van. The guy in the center seat in front pointed out oncoming lights that we could see coming toward us from around the bends on the mountain road. He also took care of wiping the windshield which continually fogged up. It took us about four hours to drive the 75 km from Coroico to La Paz.
The most interesting parts of the ride came when we met oncoming traffic on the narrow road. At one point we met an oncoming truck that had to back up about a hundred yards, around the bends on the narrow road, to reach a point wide enough that the two vehicles could pass each other. The system here is interesting – vehicles drive on the left so that each driver can clearly see the edge of the cliff road to more easily avoid going over the edge. But I don’t understand why the vehicle on the outside, closest to the cliff seemed to always back up. At least this was so for us. But maybe the system is based on the number of passengers. Since we only encountered trucks, maybe our vehicle had precedence.
I think we were also lucky that we were going to La Paz, rather than the opposite direction. Most of the time, we were on the inside of the curves.
I’m writing this now from Rurrenabacque. When I got back to La Paz, there was a ticket waiting for me to fly Transporte Aero Militaire to Rurrenabacque. This is the military, which sells seats to the public. Here in Rurrenabacque, it is very hot and steamy. I know I’m not acclimated to this climate after the time I’ve spent in La Paz.
As I sit at the outdoor restaurant, I wonder how so many teen to twenty somethings manage to be here. So many kids from England and the US here. I wonder what a place like this was like 20 years ago. And I wonder what it will be like 10 years from now. I believe much of the rainforest and wildlife here will be gone.
Wednesday July 18, 2001
We headed out of Rurrenabacque by 4WD at about 9 in the morning. We drove some pretty rough road for 3 hrs and stopped for lunch. From there it was only a short drive to the river where we boarded a long motorized canoe for a three hour ride up the Rio Yacuma. Along the way we saw many alligators, some capabara, monkeys, turtles, and many birds. The river is a little wider than the Pigeon River near Indian River, MI where I have property. But this river is slower flowing I think. It is lined with jungle and the wildlife is profuse. The monkeys we saw were squirrel monkeys. But we also heard howler monkeys further back in the canopy.
Our guide is Dorio. Although he seems to have a gruff exterior, he tries very hard to be a good guide. Our cook is Lalice.
The group also consists of Christopher, a doctor from Poland, and Peter and Anna also from Poland. There is also Elizabeth and her 9 year old son Alex, from Sweden.
Peter, Anna, and Christopher were drinking all the way up the Rio Yacuma and shared the Ceibo and coke with me. Ceibo is just a little bit like Tequila – very potent and nasty tasting. We continued drinking through dinner and after dinner. Dorio described what our next day’s activities would be – first into the Pampas to try to catch an Anaconda, then lunch and siesta, then explore the river to look for wildlife. All very matter of fact, then with music playing, he insisted on dancing. At some point, a few other people came from another camp, a bottle of rum was brought out, and we were having quite a party. It wasn’t so easy dancing under the influence of Ceibo on the rough dirt inside of our kitchen tent. But I enjoyed dancing with Elizabeth until she finally needed to take Alex to bed.
This morning when I got up, I was so hung over that I really felt badly. By the time we got into the canoe for our ride up river I began to feel better. Eventually we reached a point where Dorio docked the boat. We got out and started walking through a field of tall grass, in some places very muddy, other places with standing water, until we reached another river. At this point, Dorio suggested that Elizabeth and Alex wait while the rest of us would go find an Anaconda. But he cautioned Elizabeth not to let Alex go more than 50m or so either side of where they waited, telling her it would be dangerous for him, probably because of the alligators. I had asked Dorio about poisonous snakes here, and he had told me about a “Yopi” – don’t know if I’ve spelled that right, saying it had much the same habitat as the Anaconda.
The rest of us, Dorio, Christopher, Peter, Anna, and I waded across the river into what was swamp. We searched for about an hour without success, sometimes in swamp up over our ankles. Eventually, the swamp got quite deep and Christopher, Peter, and Anna stopped to wait. Dorio and I continued into the swamp, wading in depths sometimes up nearly to our waist. Eventually, it seemed to make no sense for me to follow Dorio, so I split off and started to explore the swamp on my own. Dorio had a machete, I had nothing. But I was determined to find an Anaconda. And just a little concerned that I could encounter a Yopi. I think this was the most dangerous thing I have done on this trip. Although I didn’t see any Yopi, I did see many birds – a Macaw, many storks and herons and eagles or hawks.
I think I explored the swamp for maybe another hour without success. I made my way back across the swamp where I could see Dorio. He told me he was going to go deeper into the swamp, so at this point I made my way back to where I’d last seen Christopher and the others. Together we walked back to where Elizabeth and Alex waited. Shortly after we returned, Dorio appeared with an Anaconda. He showed everyone the snake, then let it go. As it made its way back to the river, I got between it and the river wanting to have a chance to hold and examine the snake. But the Anaconda just moved right toward me, not the least bit slowed by my presence. I stepped aside and let it pass, and as it did, quickly grabbed it behind the head. It coiled up around my arm and shoulder so I could feel how tightly it could squeeze. But after all the danger of slogging through swamp, sometimes up to my thighs, I had caught an Anaconda. I was satisfied. After a couple of pictures, I offered the snake to the others to hold, but none wanted to hold it. It was a very smelly snake. So we let it go and it made its way rapidly back into the river. I’d say it was maybe 7 or 8 feet long.
After lunch, we took an hour or so for siesta. Our sleeping quarters is one large tent, reinforced with logs around the base. There are ten cots inside with pads, each one with its own mosquito net which works quite well – being about 4 feet high and made to perfectly fit around the pad, tucking in under it. After about an hour, I roused the others so we could get out on the river to look for wildlife.
On the Yacuma, we saw many dolphins swimming and surfacing for air. The amount of wildlife here is truly amazing. This is a great place to visit. I love it.
Thursday July 19, 2001
The afternoon and evening yesterday were quite good. In the afternoon, we went up river looking for Pink Dolphins to swim with. We did finally found some – actually found many in several different spots. At various times I swam with Alex or other times with Peter and Dorio or Elizabeth. It is only safe to swim in the river where the Pink Dolphins are swimming because the alligators and caiman are afraid of them. The Pink Dolphins attack them and keep them at bay.
At one point, we passed another canoe that was stranded on shore. Apparently, their motor had fallen off and into the river. The river here was about 4m deep, or more, so it was very difficult to dive to look for the motor. But I did dive in to swim briefly here, even though no dolphins were near. In hindsight, this was very foolish. The men with the canoes needed to dive here, trying to recover their lost motor.
In the evening we went out to search for Caiman. The trick here is to hold the flashlight near eye level and follow the beam with your eyes. The eyes of the Caiman reflect back 2 red dots. We must’ve found a hundred Caiman in a half and hour, some of which we were able to move within touching distance of.
I enjoyed the sounds of the dawn in the jungle; these were the sounds of a jungle movie. Lying quietly in bed, I could hear so many birds and animals. Just wish I knew what each individual sound was.
Friday July 20, 2001
On the drive back out of Santa Rosa, I sat in the back with Elizabeth and Alex. At one point, Dorio sitting in the front with his wife, spotted a Yopi crossing the road. Several of us got out of the car to go look and by then it was just going into the grass. It wasn’t very impressive looking, being only about 3 feet long, but I could see the triangular shape of its head with poison glands. As it was moving away, I reached down and touched its tail and Dorio and the driver went ballistic, each grabbing one of my arms and pulling me back and saying I’d be dead within two hours if it were to bite me.
Now I sit in the Rurrenabacque airport on a standby list, hoping to get a seat on the next flight to La Paz. The airport here is a cluster of small buildings beside a grass runway. I’ve paid 380 Bs for this flight. And literally, they had passengers in the luggage compartment. Had I stayed in Rurrenabacque, I’d be at the Hotel Oriental, sitting next to Elizabeth at the pool as she had invited me to do. And I wanted to. But I knew the transportation out of Rurrenabacque was unreliable, and if my flight didn't get out the next day, I'd miss my flight back to the US.
When I got back to La Paz, there were no rooms at the Hotel Republica. But before I’d left to go get a room in Hotel La Paz, I’d signed up to take a tour to Lake Titicaca for \\$48. Then off I went to have my film developed and get some cash out of a money machine.
The room in the Hotel La Paz was only \\$10 a night for a room with private bath. The downside was that the room looked very dirty. Before I called it a night, Jennifer called me to tell me that she had arranged a private tour to Titicaca, asking me not to mention the price I paid for the tour to the others, because the others had paid much more. But the guide for this tour was going to be the Aymara fellow that she had asked to take me to Tiahuanaco back during my first days in La Paz. In any case, the tour sounded nice and it was only possible by having come back from Rurrenabacque a day earlier than had been arranged by the Pampas tour company (Amazonico).
The room at the Hotel La Paz seemed so dirty that I decided to sleep in my sleeping bag.
Saturday July 21, 2001
Supposedly, this is the first day the road to Lake Titicaca has been re-opened. The Aymara signed some agreement allowing the road to be open again. Although most of the road was open, the last 10 miles or so to San Pablo de Tequina was filled with rocks and boulders. At San Pablo we took a ferry across the strait, our 4WD taking a separate vehicle ferry. We then had another 45 minute drive to Copacabana; this road also being full of rocks and boulders.
At Copacabana, we quickly visited the town, then had a delicious lunch before going to the dock where we loaded into a boat for Isla del Sol. I bought a nice hat here and also a small weaving.
In our group is Natalie and Cheryl who are here in Bolivia gathering information for a project being done by John Hopkins University on human trafficing in Bolivia and Paraguay. Apparently, some families sell their children hoping they will have a better life. Instead, they're sold into slave labor. There was also a coincidence here...Natalie had grown up within about 10 miles of where I'd grown up - me in South Lyon and her in Milford. There’s also Alysia from Argentina, who doesn’t speak English, so I didn’t get a chance to know her well. And there’s Juan Carlos our guide, who is Aymaran.
Lake Titicaca is at a scenic location 3800m above sea level, with snow-capped mountains in the distance. While hiking the island, we could look down into beautiful clear blue water bays. On the island, we visited Piedra Sagrada, a carved stone of unknown purpose, then on to the Rock of the Puma. But the highlight was the Chincana ruins, also know as El Laborinte. This was a great way to spend my last full day in Bolivia.
This last day also turned into something of a mini-adventure when it took almost an hour to drive back through the rocks and boulders to San Pedro. The last ferry ran at 7 and we didn’t arrive until about 10 minutes after. We were very fortunate it hadn’t left. I think one minute more and we would’ve missed it, being stranded here for the night, with my flight back to the US the following morning. When we got across the straits and were waiting for our 4WD, I told Juan Carlos that our driver was a very good driver to get us back in time, given the mountainous road covered with rocks and boulders. His comment to me reinforced an aspect of an earlier journey in Bolivia. He told me that this driver had once driven the road from Coroico to La Paz two days continuous. Then he repeated the words – “two days continuous” emphasizing the feat.
Interestingly, this wasn’t all. On our way back, we were stopped and ordered out of our vehicle. When I asked what was happening, Juan Carlos said they were searching for drugs. All I know is, they were carrying rifles and there were a lot of initials on the back of their jackets – something akin to the Bolivian DEA.