We left the comforts of Sucre and headed up to La Paz, the highest capital in the world standing at 3500 meters above sea level. I swear our bodies don´t know whether we’re coming or going as we keep going up and down between the different destinations. The drive into La Paz is actually at 4100 meters giving you a good view over the city which forms a bowl shape in the valley. The city itself is not that enticing, a concrete jungle full of pollution and people¸ you really come here for three reasons, the scenery just outside of the city, to party, and to say that you´ve been to the highest capital in the world. After a night of partying and a walk around the market (which was 100 times better than Tarabuco since the items were actually made out of local materials and by hand vs. acrylic and by machine), we were ready to tick the third item off of our list and see the sites outside of the city. We decided to do the Camino de la Muerte (or Death Road to you and me) on BIKES. You may have seen the episode of Top Gear where they had to drive along the road and yes it is as dodgy as it looks on film. The road starts high up in the mountains by La Paz, cuts through the Yungas and then finishes in the jungle. However, the day we decided to give it a whirl was not exactly the most idyllic day, thick with cloud, pouring with rain and we could hardly see our hands in front of our face. At the top we got suited up, gave some 97% proof alcohol to Pachamama (Mother Earth) as well as a little sip ourselves for good standing and headed on our way. The start of the ride is actually on the new paved road so it doesn´t feel too scary, however the drivers tend to refrain from using their headlights so we could only see cars or busses coming when they were 5 feet in front of us. We rode for about 40 minutes in the rain with our fingers crossed that a car wouldn´t hit us, until we reached the start of Death Road. At this point we were absolutely soaked through and I was shaking from the cold. Normally the van follows you down so you can sit it out for a while if you’re feeling tired, however on that day there was a landslide so our guide gave us the option of starting half way down (after the landslide) when the weather had hopefully cleared up a bit. Now, after the last time I sat out in the rain all day back in Pucon and then got the flu for two weeks, the idea of getting ill again didn´t sound too appealing, so I opted for the van while Justin braved the weather (and the road) and carried on down. This was a bad idea….when we reached the other side it turned out that only 20 minutes of the ride was left. Very annoying! Especially when the bit that was left was not even an adrenaline rush at all. Well, we did go through two streams so there was a bit of thrill there, I guess. When we reached the bottom there was the option to do a Canopy Zip Line. Needing more of an adrenaline rush for the day I said yes and headed up with three others in our group. There were three lines that traversed across the valley. Feeling brave I went first and arrived on the other side safe and sound. Then came the second line. All was going well until the guys on the other side told me to brake but it was too soon and then I ended up stopping before the platform and started going backwards to the middle of the line. I was bloody stuck, swinging above the trees, roads and rivers having visions of being stranded there over night. After much yelling from the guys in the end I had to pull myself in back up to the platform. Talk about an arm workout! On the third line we could go in tandom, so I went with Carmel, an Irish girl who came along with us and sat out half the bike ride too. We started out fine again until we reached the end, we braked to early and got stuck. But we were laughing so hard we could hardly even pull ourselves back in. Fortunately we mustered up the strength and pulled ourselves to safety. The day finished off with a trip to the wildlife refuge, which for me was the best part (and safest part) of the day. We saw macaws, a toucan and monkeys. The animals had come to them from the black market. Some of the monkeys had to be tied up because they could attack you or steal your wallet as they were trained to be pick pocketers. It was fun watching them play in a safe environment. After the refuge we drove 3 hours back to La Paz ready for Halloween!
In Bolivia, and I believe South America in general, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated rather than Halloween. In general it is a family occasion which they celebrate at a relative’s house, cook special food and then offer it to their departed loved ones. In return, the souls of the dead relatives watch over them. However in the Wild Rover Hostel (an Irish party hostel) we carried on with our tradition of Halloween, got dressed up, drank a few too many and enjoyed the celebrations into the wee hours of the morning. Well I did…Justin needed some beauty sleep. Unfortunately we had to fly the next morning so my carriage turned into a pumpkin at 1am, while the others went until 7am!
Our next stop was Rurrenabaque, located in the Amazon Basin north of La Paz. You can travel there by bus or by plane and neither option sounds very safe. The bus is 24 hours along the Death Road and is very treacherous. We even met a lady from La Paz who took the bus and it fell off the road into the river. Fortunately the fall wasn´t far and everyone survived. We opted for the plane, which was tiny! The tiniest plane we have ever been in, seating 19 people. The plane was so small you could probably pull yourself up into it, and when inside you can´t even stand up. You can see the pilots and hear all of the beeps that normally go on, that sound a little nerve wracking if you´re not used to them. We were told that the scenery helps to calm the nerves, but the day we left the cloud was still looming and we couldn’t see a thing. On the way back, however, there were brilliant blue skies and we could see the snowcapped mountains that we were flying in between and the rivers and trees below. It was like something out of Indiana Jones. After 35 minutes, we finished the longest flight (or Vuelo de la Muerte) of our lives and landed in Rurrenabaque.
The next day we started our Pampas Tour. The Pampas is located 3 hours away from Rurrenabaque close to a town called Santa Rosa (sound familiar?). The meaning of Pampas is grasslands, however we were going to a river that flowed in between the grasslands where the wildlife call home. There were five of us in our group, Carmel and her friend Kim that we had met back in Sucre and La Paz, and another Irish girl called Shannon. We were staying at an Ecolodge on the edge of the Rio Yacuma. The lodge, for being basic was actually comfortable and when we weren’t in our little boat we were hanging out in hammocks or drinking tea in the meals room. The first two of the three days were spent sailing up the river which is abundant with wildlife. Right away we saw Caimans lying on the banks or swimming in the river an arms reach from the boat. Capybaras were munching on grass and cooling off in the water, while turtles, piled up like dominoes, sunbathed on the logs in the water. We saw a wide variety of birds flying across the river, diving to catch fish for their next meal. We sat and watched black howler monkeys, while they watched us and played in the trees. On the second day we even had the chance to swim with the Pink River Dolphins, well dolphins, piranhas and caiman. Justin jumped right in and I followed just a few minutes behind as soon as I knew it was safe. 🙂 Fortunately the dolphins protect you against the caiman, however you’re kind of on your own with the piranhas. After 10 minutes of swimming around in the dark muddy water we decided to not push it and got out with all of our fingers and toes. The last day we went hunting for anacondas. Unfortunately we couldn´t find any, but we did find a rattle snake hiding in the bushes. Our guide Alex, also took us fishing and he caught a piranha so we could all see what it looked like. Boy it had some sharp teeth. Thank goodness they weren´t hungry when we went swimming the day before!
Our next adventure was to the Amazon, to Madidi National park which we ended up doing solo. Talk about customer service, we had our own guide, captain and cook. We took a small river boat 4 hours up the Beni and Tuichi rivers to our next Eco Lodge which turned out to be a little more basic than the Pampas. The showers were pretty much outdoors and the water was from the river. Our dining area just had a grass roof but with no protection from mosquitos, and they loved us! However, when you let the annoyances go and take a minute to soak in the surroundings, listening to the crazy sounds and smelling the sweet flowers or the tall garlic trees you realize it’s an experience of a lifetime. There’s the normal cricket noise mixed in with sounds like chainsaws, old computer game zapping and random screaches. From the river, the jungle looks pretty ominous, but hiking through it you realize how much life there is. In fact Madidi National Park is one of the planet’s most biological diverse regions. I swear we didn’t see the same bug twice and we saw a lot of bugs. I even had a large stick insect on my head! A lot of tourists also come here to find herbal remedies for infections or even diabetes. The park, as with most national parks in Bolivia, is young and was only founded in 1995. Unfortunately for the park and it’s inhabitants the region is under threat by the government who want to build an international road, search for oil, create hydro electricity plants to name a few. For once tourism actually has a positive impact on the region and could help save the park. We spent our days hiking through the jungle, looking out for peccaries (small boar like creatures that roam the forest in groups of 10 or more) which if they notice you, run, make funny firecracker sounds, and let off a burning smell to warn you to stay away. We also saw monkeys playing in the trees and giant otters swimming down the river. On our last day we did some handicrafts and made ourselves some new wedding bands out of nuts. They look quite good with our gold bands if we do say so ourselves. After four days it was back to Rurrenabaque for one more night before our flight back to La Paz the next morning. We had survived our jungle experience with only mosquito bites and a couple of ticks in the butt as our souvenirs. If you’re interested in reading more about Madidi go to this website: http://www.ecobolivia.org/em/home.php
After all the talk of …de la muerte we were excited to go to our last destination in Bolivia which was Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. At first it is quite striking with mountains in the background, however sometimes you get the feeling like it’s a big reservoir. We stayed in Copacabana which really is nothing to write home about, however we did go over to Isla del Sol which is worth a visit. This is where the tribe of the Incas was formed. We saw the sacrificial stone where they would offer llama’s to the gods and the labyrinth where they offered other gifts. Walking from the north of the island to the south you get a complete view of the island which is actually quite striking. We did the walk with a couple from Chile and spoke Spanish the whole way! However it was tough going as were back at 4000 meters, could hardly breath and I was getting a funny tingling sensation in my fingers and toes.
That night we got back and headed for Peru…although it was touch and go as we had to get a taxi to catch our bus as it left without us!