Bolivia #2: The Tropical Lowlands

Greetings from Coroico, a little village perched in the hills not far from the Bolivian capital La Paz. It’s pleasant enough, but since the sign by the road into town reading “Welcome to Paradise” rather overhyped the place I can’t help but feel rather disappointed. Also, a bird shat on my shoulder earlier, and yes, such things influence my judgement of a town.

I’ve been up to a lot in the last few days, including a trip to the jungle, but before that we paid a visit to La Paz, so let’s start with that.

La Paz was hardly the greatest city I have ever come across, but neither did I expect it to be. Though it has been settled for centuries, only one building has survived from the colonial era- most of the centre is made up of ugly concrete tower blocks.

Arriving in the city, it was a tad disconcerting to see lots of signs written in Hebrew (we encountered more of the same in Rurrenbaque in the jungle). Had we taken the bus to Jerusalem by mistake? Apparently, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of, Bolivia is a popular destination for young Israeli’s once they have finished their national service.

Sadly, where there are Israeli’s anti Semitism inevitably follows, so it was little surprise to see “Jews are a plague” scrawled on the bathroom walls in one hostel…

Perhaps the most bizarre thing about La Paz- apart from the dried llama foetuses sold in stalls on the streets- is the popularity of the bowler hat. Several decades after they went out of fashion elsewhere in the world, the hats are still going strong amongst the indigenous peoples of the Andes. And, what’s more, it’s women not men who are wearing them.

According to Wikipedia, which of course is never wrong, the tradition began a century ago, when British railway workers in Bolivia cleverly managed to flog their surplus batch of ill fitting hats by telling the women they could improve fertility. However outlandish that may seem I’m prepared to believe it, because surely no woman in her right mind would think those hats are stylish!

Found this online- thought it’d be rude to take pictures of random passers by!
And the llama foetuses. Only in Bolivia…

From La Paz, we took a short flight north to Rurrenabaque, which was notable for several reasons. Firstly, the plane was run by the civilian wing of the Bolivian air force, and thus we left from an air force base rather than the city airport. The plane, while fairly large, was propeller powered.

Also, given that we had left an icy cold airport at 4,000m at 7am, and arrived at a subtropical one at 300m less than an hour later, the temperature change was staggering. And Rurrenbaque’s tiny, rustic airport had only a grass runway. Heathrow it was not.

While Rurrenabaque is not particularly geographically distant from the capital, it felt like a world away. The temperature was of course the key difference- while La Paz is hot while the sun shines and cold when it does not, Rurrenabaque is mired in constant muggy heat and humidity. Also notable was the prevalence of the motorbike- never before have I seen a town where bikes outnumber cars by about 10 to 1.

But of course it was not motorbikes we had gone to Rurrenabaque to see. On Friday morning, while the rest of the world was settling down to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympics, we set off on our long journey into the jungle. (At this point, I ought to explain it wasn’t actually rainforest, but rather tropical grasslands called pampas- I just assume the generic term jungle has more meaning to most of you!)

Our three days in the jungle were spent in and around the Lacuma river, which winds its way several thousand miles east to the Atlantic Ocean. Aside from the tourists and the riverside huts which house them, the area is untouched by civilisation and thus teeming with all kinds of wildlife.

Pretty jungle sunset

Most conspicuous of the animal species were the crocodiles. We’d rarely go more than a few minutes without seeing one sat by the side of the river, looking effortlessly sinister. In fact, so ubiquitous were they that after a few hours on the river we began to lose interest in them- except of course when they did something cool.

Just one of the hundreds of crocodiles we must have seen

We passed one with blood smeared across its mouth and a fish clamped in its jaws. Others would sit on the river banks growling at nothing in particular. One night we parked our boat literally centimetres away from a croc, which just sat motionless in the water for what seemed like an age, before finally losing its nerve and scarpering out of the water into the trees at surprising speed.

We also came across pink dolphins, which sadly proved rather elusive and usually remained hidden in the murky water. One day after spotting a couple of dolphins we went for a swim in the river, with a pair of crocodiles watching us from the river banks. The aim was for the dolphins to come and swim amongst us, but sadly they kept their distance. Still, it was a nice experience.

A dolphin on one of its rare trips to the surface

Perhaps strangest of all were the large rodent like animals we occasionally saw congregating by the riverside. I have no idea what they were, but they were like nothing I’d ever seen before, maybe what you’d get if you crossed a rat with a dog.

Ugly, cute, or both?..

Well, that may all sound rather nice, and indeed it was, but you may be asking that if that was the jungle then why the schmungle? Well, while going to the jungle was a unique experience with lots of cool things to see and do, at the end of the day I don’t think I’m cut out for tropical life, and I was honestly quite glad to get out and back to civilisation at the end of the weekend.

First of all, the weather. It’s never pleasant in the jungle, just varying types of shit. On the boat ride to our camp it tipped it down the entire way (this in what they refer to as the “dry season”… yeah right), and since the only protection I had was a poncho apparently made of bin bags I ended up soaked and freezing. That night I could barely sleep because I was so cold, and yet the next day it was unbearably hot and humid. All within the space of 24 hours.

Then there were the mosquitoes, of which there were of course many. I’m not sure what was worse, the horrible itchy bites they give you, or the incessant paranoid suspicion that there is always one about to bite you.

While I already mentioned all the wildlife we saw, the reality is we had expected to see more. We went on a long search through a bog for giant anacondas, but with the exception of a couple of little tiddlers which slithered away before I’d gotten a proper look at them, we saw nothing. We were hoping to see lots of monkeys, but all we got was one (the appropriately named Howler monkey) which made an absolute racket to wake us up one morning before promptly escaping back into the trees before we got a chance to see it.

While I’m on a roll, I also had a nasty ropeswing accident. I tried to swing from a very high tree into the river below, but underestimated my own strength, slid down the rope and landed rather ungracefully on my arse not far from the shore. While the fall was embarrassing, what really hurt was the blister I got on my left hand. The burn was so bad my hand’s still smouldering today. You might be thinking this was solely my fault, but you’d be wrong. The jungle wanted to kill me.

My first attempt on the ropeswing, rather more successful than the second. Watching crocodiles not pictured…

And finally, getting out of the jungle was a pain. As I already mentioned we flew in, but given the cost of flying we decided to take a bus back. Sadly, as the road to the jungle is not paved, a little bit of rain turns the surface to mud. God being the bell end he is, the rain came, the road churned up, and we spent seven hours sat in a traffic jam trapped behind a lorry which had got stuck in the mire.

I make that three consecutive articles where I’ve spent more time whinging on then discussing how happy I am to be here. Sorry, just trying to tell it how it is. Perhaps I should have called this blog the Moaning Nanter. Next stop on the tour will be the Uyuni salt flats in the south of Bolivia, and then the Atacama desert in Chile, so hopefully I will have more reason to be cheerful soon!

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