La Paz--Rurrenabaque (Amazon)
We built this city on Rock....and Roll
I arrived in La Paz feeling pretty confident I had understood everything there was to understand about South American cities. They all were flat, had a central plaza, (undoubtably), an Avenida San Martin/Colon/Independencia as their main artery, shitloads of cheap food (unadvertised) sitting right next to the heavily neon-ed and expensive (relatively) gringo restaurantes. La Paz, however, was nothing like that.
It's situated up in on the altiplano, as name suggests a high altitude plain, that drops suddenly into a deep gorge before rising back into the 6000m Andes range on the other side, and then sheer cliffs that drop towards the jungles of the Amazon. (I've flown this route now in a small prop plane and it is just awe-inspiring). The city, therefore, is unique. In all the world, I can't imagine another La Paz.
The main downtown sits IN the gorge, so that the central road is the valley bottom and everything is an uphill climb, which is extremely difficult when its 3500m above sea level. Walking around the city is quite the slow, exhaustive process, so its nice that cabs are dirt cheap. Nonetheless its a beautiful place, despite all the horror stories I'd heard from travellers beforehand (granted I stayed solely in the downtown touristy areas and didn't stray out to the altiplano at all, so who knows...).
I finally met Alyssa here after 6 weeks apart, and made plans to head to the jungles on the other side. "But first!" I said, "I am going bike-riding!" ...so thats what I did.
There is a trail, known as the Death Road, that winds its way down the Andes to the jungle (65km long, almost 4km vertically downhill) that has recently been closed to vehicular traffic and is now open only to walkers or riders. The road is cut into the cliff, maybe one car-lane wide at the widest points, and someimes with cliff overhang that scrapes the tops of cars. When it rains, dozens of waterfalls cascade over the road, turning it almost into a river. Point across yet? Its a really, really dangerous road...for drivers. For us tourist bikers though, whatever. Send the gringos speeding down for a couple hundred Bolivanos. So thats what we did...
My crew from the Salt Flats (still together in La Paz) headed out early in the morning to race the Death Road. We got up to 5000m and realised the weather was bad. Did we want to go anyways? Sure, why not! We donned our gear and began. It was awful. Fog everywhere. 5 degrees. Every.Single.Part of your body soaked.... It was looking like it would be a horrendous waste of money and time... and a silly way to die. But after about half hour we began descending onto the real dirt and gravel, where the air was warmer, and it was... AWESOME! Long story short: We raced each other down this mountain in 3 hours, and because of the rain the waterfalls were epic, and the scenery was epic, and knowing that we survived the death road... epic. A great adrenaline rush that lasted all the way back up to La Paz.
I bid farewell to my group in epic fashion (a night at a Dutch pub for Queens Day...in the midst of the Bolivian's capital) as they left the other day for Lake Titicaca. I met Alyssa and we bgean planning for the jungle. We ended up taking the expensive way (by plane) since a farmers union in the North were forming a blockade of the only roads there. "No problem!" we thought, "We'll fly in, do our thing, and fly out. We don't need to worry about farmer's with dynamite! Not our concern." ...so thats what we did.
"Welcome to the Jungle!"
As I have detailed above, the flight to Rurrenabaque (Rurre), was amazing, so that an hour later when we landed on a mud track in the middle of the Amazon I was like a wound up toy of excitement. What I did not expect, and that hardly dampened my spirits the first 3 days, was that without road access this little village was literally being starved to death. No gas, no food, and since the electricity was run on diesel generators, rationed wattage! This made for interesting circumstances. No gas meant no boats to the jungle-proper, and no food meant we couldn't really stay there for too long. So we waited... and bartered... then begged. Finally, on the 5th day of rationed food and getting re-accustomed to heavy wet thick air by lazing around in hammocks swatting mosquitoes, we were able to make plans to leave on a 4 day hike. We were off to the Amazon!
(Note about Rurre: Despite sitting on the Rio Beni, a tributary of the Amazon, the place was identical to a small Trinidadian coastal village. It was strange after almost 3 months of weird vegetation and weirder landscapes--I am thinking Salt Flats, deserts and patagonian forests--to suddenly see hibiscus, a mango tree in every yard, pommeracs in season, etc. It was stranger since I was hoping to access the amazon from the Bolivian town of Trinidad, for namesake only, but in the end I ended up accessing it from a place that looked exaclty like it instead. 3 months of travel: Nostalgia only brought on by pommeracs... goddamnit.)
We boated up the Rio Beni away from Rurre into Madidi National Park- touted to be the most biodiverse protected area in the world (since it ranges from Andes to Amazon). After 3 hours weaving around sand banks and through gorges, we reached our base camp in the middle of the jungles: a collection of thatched roofed huts in a clearing near the river. Dropping our backpacks in the 'sleeping' hut, we met our guides Diego and Jose and had a quick hourlong hike into the jungles to learn what were allowed to touch, and not to touch (Pro-tip: Touch nothing and hope nothing touches you). On the way the guides demostrated the appropriate way to climb trees in case of jaguar attack; which trees contained fire ants; what mushrooms we could eat if we wanted to go on a vision quest to see what our deaths would look like (some would actually finish the job off one time); and how to MacGyver vines into just about anything that you needed.
At some point in all this chaos, I realised I was sick. I assume this was from some emapandas the day before that a woman sold me on the street for half price. I had not ever gotten sick on my journey from either the food or the water (which I have drunk everywhere from the tap like a true citizen of the third world), but it seemed to have finally caught up with me. Melted cheese had melted my iron belly, and I was a mess.
We teturned to camp and I went to bed, so I am not sure what the rest did for the next 14 hours. I lay there completely exhausted, drifitng in and out of sleep, afraid to fart. At some point Diego woke me up and gave me some tea made, he said, from some powerful Amazonian medicinal roots from the jungles he went to fetch himself. I had known this man maybe half a day, but I still thought it wiser to accept his generosity rather than turn down the black, smelly drink. "Whats the worst that could happen?" I thought, "Maybe this turns out to be malaria and I will die tomorrow... this tea cant be anything worse." So I drank it and promptly passed out.
I woke up from a sleep of the dead feeling wonderful. Magic Amazon roots indeed! I awoke to the sound of pouring rain. Cat and dog rain. We got to the 'eating hut' and had our breakfast and talked about the plans for the rest of the time there. Diego turned out to be grossly misinformed as to our itinerary and seemed confused as to where he was supposed to take us. Not good. After some bdebating back and forth, we got him to begrudgedly take us on the long, 3 day hike into the jungles that we got the feeling he was NOT in the mood for. He claimed the rain was not going to let us get as far as the other river 8km away, but we insisted we try anyways.
So we loaded up our bags with food (Here again, Diego had no clue and gave us enough for 10 days in the Jungle rather than 3) and we set off slipping through the mud and vegetation to find the other river.
...Then there was the wild boar attack...
We were in the jungles...lost (according to one very professional hiker we had with us with a GPS), and Jose goes missing. Suddenly there is all around us the sound of wild boars screeching. Diego flashes us a look of horror and tells us to get back. So we rush back, trying in vain to find the path again, and wait in a clearing for about 30 minutes while Diego looks for Jose amidst the territorial brawing of a pack of wild boars. Wonderful. I thought this rather exciting, but the others began to talk of mutiny. Apparantly, in my absence the night before they had deduced that Diego was not the best of guides and didnt have a clue as to what we were supposed to do. NOT something you want in the Amazon.
The guides returned, and we were told it was too late to reach the river. Flashes of dissent rippled through the group. We had to make camp at some other halfway point. Whatever, we decided. We had skipped lunch due to wild boar attack, and we were being pissed on by the rain. We were not in the mood for a fight just yet.
We got to the campsite, strung up our makeshift tent, gathered some wet wood, and two hours later amidst REAL whispers of mutiny, we ate and went to bed.
The rain didn't stop all night, and as a result our camp flooded. Waking up and stretching our stiff, waterlogged muscles, wringing out our sleeping bags, and pulling mud out from every orifice did nothing to qualm the tensions of my hiking mates. Diego admitted defeat. The mutiny was a success. We were hiking back to the main camp, and GPS-toting Manolo would check our route. I felt bad for our guides, who were trying their very best to make it a fun experience for us, and for me it was, but 2 against an angry 5 and a neutral 1 is bad odds... thats how Germany lost WW2.
So we set back in the still rain (Note: It is always raingin in the Amazon, but the rain hardly makes it down to us. We can hear it pouring above, but we barely feel a drizzle due to the thickness of the canopy. Nonetheless, we were permanently wet).
About 50m away from our camp we spotted jaguar tracks: a stark reminder that while we bitch and moan like spoilt tourists, this is NOT a safe and secure place to be...Diego and Jose know this well, as they relate stories about 2 guides who had died recently (one by jaguar, the other by wild boars).
We make it back to the main camp in half the time, setting a pace that Alyssa almost died from.
That night we ate like kings, the surplus of the food we had toted back and forth through the jungles unneccessarily, and headed out for a night hike with Diego.
Night hikes are different. For those who go scuba diving, it is almost exactly like doing a night dive. There is nothing, except 40ft underwater, like the total blackness of a jungle at night. You become extremely focused on your one flashlight beam, and the background hum of animals becomes like a roar. Its amazingly transcendant. Like a completely different world. We went for 2 hours to a drinking hole, hoping to see some jags or tapirs, and whatnot, but all we got were bats and spiders, and one monkey. We returned a little disappointed, but somehow refreshed and exhausted of the residual anger of the previous 2 days. It had somehow seeped into the jungle, and the jungle had somehow seeped into us...
"No more hikes!" we all begged when we woke up and it was STILL raining. So we mulled around camp for a couple hours and made native jewelry from seeds and sticks, watching as Mother Nature (the bitch) allowed the clouds to pass and the sun to finally shine, exactly when we were done!
We got on our boat that afternoon and snoozed as we gently putted downriver and back to Rurre, bitten, itchy, wet and stink.
All in all, I enjoyed my time in the Amazon. There were moments of real... nirvana?... when we breaked on a ridge to drink water, or turned off our flashlights to plunge ourselves into true darkness, where I thought... "This is a Jungle. This is the AMAZON! This is Nature's jewel!" And I was content.
Our plane ride back to La Paz (and then onwards to Lake Titicaca) is tomorrow. It cost about 4 times as much as expected, and was at least twice as frustrating... but worth it.
I am excited to head on... but I am beginning to have to fight against a strange current on the trail. The Gringo Trail, as most people do it, runs around from Rio de Janiero in Brazil over carnival, down to Patagonia and climaxes at Cuzco, and Macchu Picchu. The vibe of the travellers here is one of climax. Everyone is saturated with their trips, and excited to be finishing. I am beginning to absorb this excitment, which is not a good thing for the 2 months I have after my own Macchu Picchu adventure. Something I am going to have to readjust over the coming weeks.
Well then, readers. Another month, another entry. Sorry to be slowing it all down, but blogging is becoming more difficult for me. Writing in general. Gloria has barely been touched in weeks... not something she will enjoy. I think its because I have been travelling in tandem with other people for too long... not enough solitude. Something to remedy over the coming weeks too, I suppose.
Until then, then!