Chaos and Tranquility in Bolivia’s Jungles

So far since travelling I’ve been in the odd precarious situation, but it wasn’t till I was abseiling down from the Presidential hotel’s 15th floor in Bolivia’s capital La Paz dressed as Batman that I was genuinely scared. Not from the height itself, but from the complete lack of grip between my cheap market shoes and the plastered exterior wall, which caused me to slip and slide from 70 odd metres above the ground, almost rotating around to face the wall and completely unable to keep the instructed form for the decent. Got some pretty neat Go Pro footage though. This is La Paz.

Batman needs new shoes

You hear a lot of things about La Paz before arriving, both good and . . . . interesting. I would have to say in terms of the vista you get from a decent viewpoint, it’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen. Ramshackle houses crawl up the sides of the bowl-like valley in which it nestles, behind them the magnificent snowy peak of Huayna Potosi climbs into sight. To the right a grand cliff of craggy rocks breaches in between the urban jungle. On the ground level it is less pretty but no less stunning. Chaos in every direction. If you’ve ever watched a trail of ants closely, they’re always bumping into each other and frantically adjusting to get past, even if they have a common direction. This is how people drive in La Paz. Tiny streets on uneven terrain, steep hills, so many different types of vehicles; the scenes are similar to some places in South East Asia. The chaos inevitably spills into the life of a traveller also, you can certainly get up to a lot in La Paz and the hostels cater for this party vibe. Different themed events every night in the main hostels including a beer pong tournament where teammate Steve and I endured a heartbreaking loss in the final. The cheap alcohol flows like a sick backpackers bowels and from there La Paz simply pulls you in and spits you out on the floor next to your bed, where you stay until the following afternoon. The fact it’s the cheapest place in South America keeps it up as a favourite backpacking destination. I regularly fed myself with a $1.50 NZD street burger, but the prices of some of the restaurants persuaded me to spend more on  the odd occasion. One of the casualties was the biggest and best hunk of barbecue pork ribs of my life for $15, and at a really nice steakhouse too. To beat the chill of altitude I picked up a fake North Face jacket that nonetheless did the job superbly, and an ‘if I didn’t look like a Gringo before I certainly do now’ alpaca fleece style jumper, both for about $10.

Of course the Death Road is on everyone’s radar once they arrive in La Paz, whether they are considering doing it or not. Basically it consists of a downhill mountain bike down a thin gravel road cut into a valley a few hours from La Paz. The name comes from the fact that when road traffic was more prominent on the road fifteen years ago it was dubbed the ‘Worlds Most Dangerous Road’. On bikes, yes there are sheer drops just metres from where you are riding, with the road tightening to only three metres across in some parts, but it’s mainly okay and hard to go off the cliff. People do bail in every ride but thankfully they only scab up their face, break their elbows and destroy their knee caps on the brash rocks. But everyone gets a t shirt and DVD included!

No visit to Bolivia is complete though without a visit to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,811 metres above sea level. Copacabana was the town I arrived in late one night in the pouring rain, spending the night chilling in a hostel that cost less than a deluxe cheeseburger for the night with some Brazilians I met on the bus. The following day I got up early to catch a boat to Isla Del Sol (Island of the Sun) which sits in the lake and is regarded as a must do day trip. I was pretty stoked to bump into two mates I met in Santiago at the beginning of my trip at the dock, a crazy coincidence that happens surprisingly often with the various people you met as you go along. Guess the Gringo trail holds you closer than you think. The views on the island were spectacular, actually reminding me a bit of Lake Taupo at some points. On the boat ride over I was a bit chilly given the altitude and the fact it is winter, inconveniently and typically the only person who thought shorts were a good idea. I had the last laugh though, once on the island the combination of trying to hike inclines in the lack of oxygen that high up and the blistering sun caused a decent sweat to join the party.

sol
Patrick connecting with his Sol

The jungle in Bolivia beckoned as the next stop, a three day tour in the wetlands they call the Pampas to swim with pink dolphins, search for anacondas, and fish for piranhas. Well we didn’t see an anaconda, and I accidentally kicked a dolphin while treading water which led to shear panic and girly yelping on my part and an obvious disinterest in playing with me from the dolphin’s side, but god damn am I good at catching piranhas.

boat trip
Boat cruise Bolivia style
jungle sunset
I do feel bad about kicking that dolphin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The four day planned stay in the jungle and the launch town of Rurrenabaque got complicated with me spontaneously signing up to spend five days living off the jungle with a local Spanish speaking tribesman. Despite probably being the messiah of fishing it is too slow a sport for me, but in the jungle it kind of becomes a necessity. The strategy is basically search for larvae in tiny rotting coconuts, which I also ate (it wasn’t as good as Timone and Pumba make out), use them to catch a small fish, use that fish to catch a bigger fish and if you can, use the bigger fish to catch an even bigger one. At night we slept in pre-built leaf huts on the ground, I had just the one pair of clothes which I slept in and a mosquito net, plus some kind of scraggly rag that only served to keep you off the dirt. Oh and termites taste like menthol. You gotta keep your breath fresh in the jungle somehow.

Day one, no fish, it was getting late, I was still getting used to drinking the water from the river which was not only murky brown but containing soot with every mouthful; nonetheless it was tasty and my daily morning ritual of slight diarrhea which it no doubt brought on lasted only slightly more than a week, which for South America I consider a raging success. We’d been sitting unsuccessfully for hours tossing our hand lines into the river when finally a huge bugger yanked the line. In I pulled the accidental and disappointing catch, a tortoise. Upon bringing it ashore it must of had a vision of seeing it’s 30 babies grow up because it gripped the sand with a Hercules-like strength, causing the line to pull taut to the point of the hook coming lose, the sinker shooting out of the darkness and cracking me just above the eye. I had a cute little war wound, and Lazaro my guide found it utterly hilarious so I guess it’s not all bad. That determined reptile sadly met its end soon after and I’m not proud of it. A second time upon pulling in my eagerly awaited catch the beady head of the tortoise greeted my from the waters edge. After some back and forth attempts to understand Lazaro’s shouting from a rock 10 metres away I realised Tortcules was dinner, and I was the reluctant butcher. I only had a small knife, and without revealing the details, my brutish attempts to end its life quickly were not met with anywhere close to success. Enter machete-wielding guide and four or five solid hacks at its rubbery neck and the poor beast was beheaded. I shit you not it’s arms were still flailing half an hour later as it roasted on our beach fire. When cooked, Lazaro cracked it in half and we both held half a shell like a tortoise taco, reaching in and ripping out bits of chewy flesh and who knows what else. It was dinner, jungle style.

The next few days we had more success with fishing, relatively. My luck with the piranhas didn’t translate so well, a perceived clever attempt to climb a fallen tree overhanging the wide river to get to a good spot was followed by me dropping the hand line in the water as I tried to cast. There was a split second of bemused staring before I leapt in after it, fully clothed, but the line was gone instantly in the strong current. Then the next day I threw a monster cast out into the river, glancing at Lazaro with a wry smirk to see if he noticed that it went even further than his. Pity then it had too much slack and got stuck under a log, making me a useless companion because he told me to wait in case a fish came and took it. Lazaro went to a better spot with his line and I took the opportunity to try and dry my clothes, which were damp mainly from the knee deep mud that was trying to swallow me with every step. The beach mosquitoes and flies pounced on the banquet of my exposed near naked body for far too long before Lazaro called me over; between the flying bugs and the biting ants whose bodies split in half before their vice grip released whatever they sunk their teeth into, I would be itching my wounds for the next fortnight. I went to my master and helped pull in a truly gigantic catfish, which when cooked that night was undoubtedly the best fish I’ve ever had in my life. I sat there literally pulling every piece of meat off it’s carcass, then sat sharing cigarettes and the little whisky Lazaro had in his small milk bottle around the fire, with a full belly, trying to communicate  in broken Spanish while the bugs of the jungle hummed all around and the deep groan of the river lulled me into absolute tranquility,

By this time I was looking pretty ridiculous, I had a feather poked out of my ear, a hat made of flax, a shell necklace and a large water holder made from bamboo, all things I’d watched Lazaro whip up from the resources the jungle provides in absolutely no time at all. By the end of the day, the only thing left in one piece was the water holder. A typically brisk morning hike to another area greeted us soon after the sun rose, with the traditional chewing of coca leaves that I’d been participating in giving another great buzz that made it easy to push through the heat. Up ahead however, a huge storm slowly rolled towards us. Birds sparkled out of the trees above, the thunder sparking a melancholic air as the relentless mosquitoes and utterly awful biting ants disappeared entirely.

We took a quick breather under a tree as the rain began to pelt us, I was utterly wrong thinking that was as bad as it would get. In front of us was a log which served as a bridge across one of the many stagnant streams which I had crossed the last few days without any trouble. With that success I was feeling a bit like Indiana Jones but in the rain and the chaos, a few steps in off I slipped, landing chest deep in the water just as the rain turned torrential. Gone was my beautiful tribal hat and feather ear piece, and any patch of dry clothing left on my body. But when I jumped back on the log my inner feral tribesman came out, charging through the jungle echoing the ridiculous jeers and animal sounds that Lazaro was always making, just to fight through the downpour with a functional level of moral. Eventually and freezing cold at this point, we arrived at the hut we stayed in the first two nights for shelter, meeting two English girls Helen and Naomi who were also doing survivor with their guide and seeking shelter. Speaking English felt like cheating but we didn’t have a lot of time to acquaint, the subtle cracking of wood leading to all five of us madly dashing out of the hut as a large tree crashed to the ground behind us, just missing the tiny tepee shaped hut. Wisely, the guides took us to an old timber building the local tribesman used to live in. It was elevated above the soggy jungle ground, albeit with missing pieces of the rotting timber floor and half walls which left us exposed to the cold. Me and Lazaro were meant to build a raft out of driftwood that day and sail down the large River Beni to our final pickup spot but instead I spent the next twenty hours huddled around a fire drying my soaked clothes and frozen body and bantering with my new friends, waiting for morning where warm food and a boat back to civilization awaited. Not really what I would call surviving, however the night was notably bitterly freezing so at least I got a bit more of the unpleasantness that I signed up for. I later found out the storm and the cold front it brought about was a once a year event. While biding our time in the hut the guide made a tribal ink from some seeds, for doing henna-like tattoos which he prompty rubbed over my hands before I could protest, meaning I looked like an oil worker for the next two weeks. Cheers Lazaro. Got a cool forearm tattoo though which was made up of symbols documenting my time in the jungle; amongst them a sun, the river, a fish, and most notably, a tortoise.

 

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