Bolivia: The Amazon/ Bolivien: Der Amazonas
Wednesday was my final day in La Paz. It started a bit slowly with a mini lie in, some calls to Germany and some packing. After that I just walked through town, revisiting some of the stops of the walking tour. I also took the red cable car up to hill to El Alto (which is at 4100m). Down in town there is a witches market, where you can buy all sorts of potions, llama fetuses and candy for Patcha Mama, the goddess of the earth. But up in El Alto is the real deal - a long row of small hut where the witches work.
I did not visit a witch (although maybe she could have made my hair grow back faster - or at least curse the hairdresser) but continued to explore El Alto. I found a super bustling market, lots of vendors, minitaxis, people. I sampled some street food and just let myself float through the streets - real La Paz life with me as the only tourist around.
On the way down, I got off the cable car at the cemetery - which is huge and very different from the one in Buenos Aires. While there it is all about grand tombs for the important families, in Bolivia there are not really graves in the Western sense. Instead there are buildings which rows and rows of niches, where the ashes of the deceased are kept and which get decorated with flowers, pictures, small bottles of Coca Cola and other things.
From the cemetery I walked across the market - which allowed me to appreciate just how big it is. I made sure I was back at the hostel by 2.30pm (swinging by the Lanza market for a super-tasty avocado sandwich) because I had a 4:30pm flight to catch. After my experience with the taxi coming in, I decided to follow the advice from one of the guys in the hostel who works the night shift and go by cable car - a very interesting experience and definitely quicker than by taxi. Once I got to El Alto (again), I took a cab and within 10 minutes I was at the very modern airport (which also has great wifi - a rarity in Bolivia). My flight was almost the smallest commercial plane I have ever flown in (the smallest one is still our flight from Arusha to the bush back in Tanzania):
Around 40 minutes later we landed on an airstrip in the middle of literally nowhere. There was not even a terminal building, just a bus waiting for us and few passengers who wanted to take the plane back to La Paz.
So where was I? I had flown to a place called Rurrenabaque, north of La Paz (you can also take a bus but that will take anywhere between 18 and 24 hours). The main attraction in Rurre is that it is in the Amazon and you can take multi-day tours either into the jungle or the pampas (the grasslands between the rivers emptying into the Amazon) from there. I had arranged for a 3-day pampas tour where you cruise in a motorized canoe along a side-river of the Amazon. The pampas tour is best if you are interested in animals - birds, caimans/ crocodiles, pink river dolphins, monkeys, turtles, capybara (which look like pig-size Guinea pigs) and also piranhas and of course the anaconda.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Because first I had a problem to solve: as soon as I got off the plane, I was handed a piece of paper that my return flight had been moved from 17:35 to 14:10 - which carried the huge complication that I would not be back from my tour until 4pm. I argued but there was nothing to do. So I took the bus from the shack, well terminal, into town to the agency I had booked my tour with. The lady there was very nice and called Amazonian Air. She was able to find out what the problem is (scheduled maintenance of the aircraft) but was also unable to do anything about it. So I had three options a) Stay an extra day in Rurre b) shorten the tour to 2 days or c) pay around 100 USD extra for a private transport back to Rurre on day 3 so I could make my flight. I felt that 100 USD would be worth not losing a day, so I went for c) - being grateful that I have a job that allows me the luxury of making these choices.
After all this excitement, I headed to my hostel. First order of business: put on bathing suit and take a plunge in the pool. After that, a long call back to Switzerland to sort out some details of part 3 of this journey (Patagonia) - it turns out, going to Patagonia in the main season requires quite a bit of pre-planning as both accommodation and transportation tend to book out.
After (especially at night time) quite chilly La Paz, it took me a bit to re-adjust to the tropical climate of Rurre - during the whole night I was just hot and uncomfortable. I got up quite early and chilled a bit in the hammocks until my pick up. The group for the tour ended up being just three of just: Ryan and his buddy Jack from Alberta, Canada and myself. The first part of the trip was a long drive along a dirt road. We stopped for lunch in a small town, Santa Rosa. The owners of the restaurant insisted on taking half a dozen pictures but towards the end mentioned something about an anaconda. So our driver took us to the anaconda. We arrived at a barn and first peeked in through the window - in the very back corner lay what looked like a big tire.
When we went around the barn and looked in through the window right above it, we actually got a better view. Its belly was huge, apparently it had eaten a duck (although it looked more like at least a pair of ducks). It had been found on a farm and (somewhat understandably) the farmers were not too thrilled to have a 7m-long, 200-kg-heavy anaconda on their property. They wanted to kill it but the guy in front of whose barn we were standing had come to catch it and lock it in his barn for a few days while they were looking for a permanent habitat for it. Eventually the barn-owner came and unlooked the door. It is something different to watch an anaconda through a window and to stand just a few meters away from it. But both the owner and our guide ensured us that it was save as a) it just had eaten and b) anacondas are quite slow on land. Eventually we mustered our courage and were even able to touch it (but only after ensuring that we had no suntan lotion or insect repellent on our hands).
After that excitement we went back to the car and back to the dusty roads until we reach the harbor, which is actually just a collection of motor-powered canoes. We put our packs, all the food and water we would need for the next two days in the boat and then took a seat.
What followed was a two to three hour trip along the river which felt a lot like a water-born safari. We saw some pink dolphins breaking the water, monkeys came to play with us, we saw some capybaras on the bank and countless birds and turtles. And of course a few caimans as well - although we learned later that night that they are easier to spot at night when their eyes reflect flashlight with a distinct yellow color - and holy moley they are everywhere. It was really hot and so we gladly took the invitation of our guide to swim with the dolphins when we encountered them. Unfortunately they were not too interested in us but the swim was so refreshing that that in itself was worth it.
Eventually we reached our lodge, built high on the river bank - a kitchen/dining hut, a hammock hut and several sleeping quarters and a toilet block with showers. I got a comfy single room - with a well needed mosquito net. Besides all the other animals we saw, the pampas are inhabited by gizillons of blood-thirsty mosquitos.
So it was long sleeves and trousers despite the heat - and generous amounts of repellent (I got bitten loads nevertheless). The remaining items on the itinerary for the day were a sundowner over the pampas, dinner (tasty and plentyful) and then (although we were quite tired) a nighttime excursion in the boat to see the stars (amazing out here with zero light pollution) and the aforementioned caimans. After such a full day, we happily and tiredly collapsed into our beds.
It turned out to be really fortunate that we had done the night time boat ride that night because the next day, it was just raining, raining, raining. However, this also had advantages - not so much for the mosquitos, they were just extra nuisancy in the short breaks between the rain - but a) it was much cooler and b) it turned out to be a fairly relaxing day with lots of time in the hammocks, waiting for breaks in the rain. But kudos to our guide, we still managed all the activities we wanted to do. After breakfast (and hammocking to wait for a break in the rain), we headed out in the pampas behind our lodge in search of another anaconda, this time out in its natural habitat. To Jack's relief we did not find any - but it was quite an interesting experience to walk through the high grass and never being quite sure what awaits you. When we came back, we had a visitor in the camp. Our guide called him Federico:
After lunch (and more hammocking while the rain was heavily drumming down on the roof), we made another attempt at dolphin swimming (we found some dolphins and I saw one up pretty close but again they were not in the mood for playing) - with the extra excitement of caimans on the bank. But our guide assured us that the caimans were not interested and if they were, the dolphins would chase them away. Once done with swimming, we headed to catch some piranhas. We learned that in the river the piranhas are fairly small because the dolphins eat them. It was actually the first time in my life I went fishing - and a fairly basic affaire: some fishing line, wrapped up on a piece of wood with a metal hook on the end. Attach a piece of meat to the hook, throw it in the water and wait (seconds) for the fish to start nibbling - and then comes the hard part. Yank the line to pull the fish out of the water and into the boat. I almost managed to catch one, I already had him out of the water but I was not quick enough to pull him into the boat. Jack had more luck:
Following this success (and avoiding to become even more of a mosquito dinner), we headed back to the lodge, where some more guests had just arrived. Dinner was again very tasty and this time we even got a bottle of wine. Some card playing, wine drinking and chatting later, it was off to bed again. What worried me a bit was that the guide told me that if it continues to rain, I might not be able to fly out at all, which would completely mess up my plans - but as this was nothing I could influence, I decided to not worry about it for now.
The next day, the weather was really nice again - so any worries were indeed unfounded. Originally the plan had been to try to dolphin swimming again in the morning but the guide felt it would be better if I left right after breakfast to be on the safe side in case something went wrong on the boat or during the car ride. And so I got my own private transport back. Despite not stopping for animals, I was on the boat well over an hour - and we made some quick stops to watch some dolphins. During the car ride I was amazed by the driver's ability to navigate the sand road turned muck at quite impressive speed.
And eventually after a very smooth ride I was back at the "airport" with plenty of time to kill (aka time to read). Back in La Paz I tried to find a place with reliable internet for some work, phone calls and trip planning. But turned out not so easy. Even in the hostels, internet is a huge hit and miss - but at least I had a beautiful view over La Paz as the sunset while waiting for my night bus to Potosi.
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