Category Archives: Bolivia

Final Map

Here ends our story. After traveling for almost eight months in South America, (yes, it has taken us a long time to write the last few blog posts!) we headed back home to make arrangements for new adventures.

We covered a lot of ground and while we could have moved faster and seen more countries, we didn’t want to just tick the boxes but actually to experience the places we visited. It truly has been the trip of a lifetime. We experienced so many wonderful places, met so many people – both travelers and locals, and loved every minute. If you have ever wanted to go to South America, you should definitely do it! It certainly won’t let you down!

Adios amigos,

Mark and Saskia.

 


Death Road Part 1

We are interrupting our scheduled broadcast to bring you our first posting on Death Road. We recently reached 1,000 subscribers for the blog and thought putting this up would be a good way to celebrate.

Mark gets ready.

That's Mark raising his hand.

This is part one of two postings on our Death Road cycle tour in Bolivia. We've had to split it up as there is an hour of footage and a lot of photos. The second post will go up as soon as the remaining video has been edited.

We picked Altitude on the basis of a recommendation from friends. They proved to be a good choice, great guides and there were enough to accommodate different speeds.

Mark switching on his GoPro.

The tour was split into two stages. The first began at the top of the mountain pass and ended near a truck stop. This was all on tarmac. The second stage involved getting back in the vans and travelling to the start of Death Road, a dirt road that hugs the side of a mountain range. This road has now been replaced by another route so it is much safer to use. However, unbeknownst to us when we booked the tour, the new road was partially blocked by a recent landslide so there would be traffic coming back up towards us…kind of a problem when the road narrows to one lane with no rails to prevent a fall.

The tip went well though. No-one was hurt, apart from the guy that front-braked for a shopping bag…Saskia rode shotgun in one of the vans as she didn't fancy riding a bike, but this was just as scary as she had to deal with traffic coming from the opposite direction!


A bit of video for ya. Best with headphones.

 


Isla del Sol

We ended our time on Bolivia with a visit to Isla del Sol, the Inca's mythical birth place of the sun and the god Varacocha. It is from here that the first Incas are said to have journeyed to Cusco to found the Inca empire.

The island can be found in Lake Titicaca, the largest high altitude lake in the world. To get there we took a boat from Copacobana, a small town on the eastern edge of the lake.

This was our first time getting up close with a significant Inca site so we were pretty excited. We opted to stay a night on the island to catch the sun set and sun rise, which as you can see above turned out to be a great idea.

Yumani Village, Isla del Sol.

Things got off to a comical start. We stayed at Yumani Village, one of two main drop off points on the island (the other is Cha'llapampa). Our hostel was on a ridge but we hadn't realised how steep the hike up would be…

Old Inca terraces used for agriculture.

At 3,808 metres altitude the hike, with all our bags, had zero appeal. We retreated to a nearby café and tried to work out what to do. Saskia in particular has a hard time with altitude and was a little distressed.

As we waited and took in the view we saw several herds of donkeys being shepherded down the slopes. We found out that the donkeys carry supplies up to the restaurants on the ridge…the answer to our problems! So, we paid six dollars for two donkeys and headed up the ridge with our pack animals in tow.

Isla del Sol features several sets of ruins and minor sites but the two main attractions are arguably the terracing and stairs at Yumani and the Chincana complex to the north. These sites are linked by a picturesque half day walk along the island's ridge line, which we tackled the next day.

The stairs, known as Escalera del Inca,.

We really enjoyed the walk, although the thin air made minor slopes feel like hills! The views are sensational. It actually looks remarkably similar to the Taupo region in New Zealand and Mark had to keep reminding himself that this was a serious Inca site.

A small village on the ridge line.

Looking south towards Copacobana.

Piles of stones. In the background you can see the Andes, which pass on the east.

The big draw for Chilcana is the sacred rock, the site where the sun is meant to have emerged. The site also contains a small ceremonial plaza and dramatic ruins that once housed the priests and caretakers of the rock.

To be completely honest we thought the rock itself was a disappointment. We walked straight past it several times and it was only through deduction that we worked out which one it was. They really need to put signs in there, but regardless we couldn't understand why that piece of the landscape was singled out.

What's the big deal?

Opposite the rock is a small patch of cleared ground with a ceremonial table. Not sure whether the area has been restored but that was slightly more interesting.

The ruins a few metres north were far more interesting. They are a small, labyrinthine complex that provided accommodation and food storage for the priests. Perched on the edge of the hill, they look down onto a tranquil beach and provide a good view of the lake.

Note the wall insets in the left. These are actually very common in Inca architecture and apparently are where religious artefacts would be placed, as well as mummies.

After a bit of a rest here we headed down to Cha'llapampa to catch a boat back to Yumani. It's a nice spot with am interesting museum. Apparently there's an underwater village just north of the island. Not sure how old it is but they've recovered pots etc and put them in the museum. Worth a visit while you wait for the boat.

Kids pretending to go fishing.

One thing we really loved were the boats made out of reeds. They look like old viking boats. The locals on the Peruvian side actually make islands out of the reeds as well as boats. We considered paying them a visit but heard the area has become heavily commercialised, so we skipped it and headed to Cusco instead.

And so ends our trip to Bolivia. We have one more dispatch on Death Road but it will take awhile to pull together (Mark has an hour of footage). All in all we really enjoyed our five weeks in Bolivia. The altitude got the best of us in the end but it was definitely worth the time. If pushed for time make beelines for Rurrenabaque and Sucre, they are great places to stay and offer plenty to do in the region. Don't linger in La Paz, it's not worth it!

The next posts will be a series on the Incas, including trips to ruins, museums and general stuff we learnt. Will mark them all with the 'Inca' tag so that they are easy to pull up for those interested. Looking forward to going back over the material.

As always thanks for reading. We've clocked up over 450 subscribers, which is both flattering and humbling. We get a real buzz looking at which countries our readers are based in, very cool! This blog has exceeded our expectations and we hope everyone else is enjoying this as much as we are.

Kind regards,

Mark and Saskia.

 


A Fiesta in the Amazon: San Ignacio de Moxos (Bullfighting)

Part of the festival celebrations involved bull taunting – a cross between a rodeo and a bull fight. We sat in a makeshift stadium (that looked like it would fall over in a strong gust of wind) and watched with a mix of awe and horror as the event unfolded. It was a total free for all on the field. Most of the guys were drunk, fighting each other to ride the bulls, only to fall off and get trampled. Several people were injured, some seriously. There was no security, no management or control. The treatment of the bull was completely cruel for the frightened animals. The only saving grace was that the bulls were not killed like they are in Spain, and at least some of the bulls evened the score.

As the afternoon progressed and the alcohol sank in, the bull fighting degenerated and more and more people started getting injured. There were so many people on the field that the bulls had no option but to plough into someone who was too drunk to get out of the way fast enough.

There was one old guy, affectionately known by us as Stumbles the Drunk, who could hardly stand and spent his time zigzagging across the arena, occasionally waving his shirt in the general direction of the bull. He didn't seem to know where he was and occasionally looked up at the crowd with confusion. We knew this wouldn't end well. Sure enough, a bull ran straight for him, he froze and they head butted each other. Poor old Stumbles ended up unconscious on the ground and was carried off by his arms and legs to a waiting ambulance.

Stumbles the Drunk, the people's champion.

The more drunk they got, the more the guys had to show off how macho they were. Shirts came off, insults were fired, people clawed at each other to get onto the bull first and pulled the slow ones off. Then they started actually throwing punches, which involved crowds of people joining in and quickly forgetting about the bull running loose behind them. All chaos broke loose when a second bull came free of its tether and ran into the crowd!

Macho men.

Fight!

Towards the end of the afternoon a bull ran at the fence line where men where clinging to the side hoping to avoid contact. Unfortunately, one guy was punctured in the stomach by the bull horns, thrown in the air and then fell to the ground. A crowd surrounded him and we couldn't see what was happening until they tried to carry him to the edge of the field. Only then did we see a pile of intestines lying on his bare abdomen. He was quickly put in an ambulance and taken to Trinidad (3 hours away). We asked around the next day to see what had come of him. One person said that they managed to put his intestines back inside him and sew him up, but another said that they thought he had died. We never found out for sure.

After this incident, people began to lose interest and the general drunken behaviour took over from the revelry of the earlier celebrations. The bullfighting was wrapped up, followed by more parties late into the night. Some people came off second best but to be honest, we didn't feel too sorry for them after the way they were tormenting the bulls. The safety standards are not what you expect elsewhere, but that's Bolivia in a nutshell!

Chaos on the field.

 


A Fiesta in the Amazon: San Ignacio de Moxos (Fireworks)

At night the party really kicked off. The plaza was packed and bands competed with each other across the streets.

The action was centred on the church, where Achus were running through the crowd with fireworks spinning on their hats. The sky was also being lit up by fireworks, which were paid for by two wealthy families that compete with each other every festival.

It was great fun being there. There were dangers though – people were throwing small fireworks into the crowd. This, along with the Achus, was causing chaos as people scattered in all directions. At one point a small firework barely missed a child in a tree but instead hit the father in the face. Amazingly he wasn't hurt and despite this experience he left his child sitting exposed in the tree!

We left around midnight but the fiesta kicked on to around 4:00 am. Some people were still drinking the next morning and others had passed out on the sidewalk. This was easy to ignore though and the bands kept a good vibe going the next day.

Here's a recording of two songs played by the guys in the photo below.

 


A Fiesta in the Amazon: San Ignacio de Moxos (Parade)

San Ignacio de Moxos is a small town between Rurrenabaque and Trinidad in Bolivia's Amazon Basin. We heard that it hosts one of the best festival's in the Amazon, so we flew to Trinidad (the road is terrible), and made our way to the small town to be there for the 324th fiesta. Started by jesuit missionaries, the UNESCO world heritage festival combines local indigenous traditions with Christian imagery. The celebrations last several days but the highlight of the festival is the colourful street parade that involves hundreds of people in traditional costumes following the procession that is headed by the statue of Saint Ignacio.

Saint Ignacio; a sun costume, particulalry important to indigenous cultures; pan pipes.

Despite stifling heat and humidity, the parade lasted several hours as people danced and sang their way around town. There were colourful dresses and hats, as well as the iconic feather headdresses, which were absolutely stunning. Community groups, school children, sport teams, old and young alike all participated wearing different costumes. The indigenous worship of the sun, moon and animals was strongly present in the costumes represented by horses, feathers of colourful parrots, jaguar skins, jabiru heads and paper maché figures of deer, goats, birds, fish and a giant anaconda. The whole town seemed to be out celebrating.

Mother's Club.

Animals were a common feature. Clockwise from the top left: cow, jaguar (real pelts were used), and a red deer.

The masked Achus are another icon of the festival. The hats they are wearing later held spinning fireworks.

The amazing feather headdresses were particularly spectacular and are most famously associated with the festival.

 


No Molestar los Animales

The photo above shows a tourist holding a yellow squirrel monkey. It was taken during our pampas tour in Bolivia's Amazon. The poor monkey was snatched with child-like glee from a tree that our guide had plowed into. Apparently animals are cute toys to be touched and handled for our entertainment. We also saw people almost jump out of our boat to touch a crocodile!

Kids from our tour try to get up close with the monkeys. We were with Fluvial Tours.

The same operators will catch anacondas and let people hold them for photos (and shit on the tourists out of fear) and we heard reports of people getting so close to dolphins that they were bitten.

We were shocked at the approach of the tour operarors, who clearly knew that some tourists wanted an up close experience and competed with each other to get their boats closer to the action. All the operators in the pampas that we saw behaved the same way, despite signs in Rurrenabaque warning people not to 'molestar los animales'.

We would encourage you to do a bit of research before committing to a tour in the Amazon (note that most operarors run tours in both the pampas and the jungle). We think it is really important that this behaviour is not encouraged. Surprisingly, this operator was recommended by Lonely Planet but in their defense they did warn about this sort of behaviour. We will be sure to raise this with them all the same.

Thanks for reading,

Mark and Saskia.

 


Bolivian Amazon: Pampas

There are are two tours that people commonly take when they get to Rurrenabaque: a jungle tour, which we just covered, and a pampas tour. The environments are very different. Whereas in Madidi National Park you are surrounded by dense jungle, the pampas is a large, flat, wetlands system. The pampas tours seem to be popular because they provide three unique opportunities:

  1. A morning hike searching for anacondas.
  2. A swim with the Amazon's pink freshwater dolphins.
  3. A boat trip to catch piranhas.

There are a range of tour operators offering pampas tours, with those promoted by Lonely Planet being the most popular. They are typically very cheap and some also offer a budget jungle tour. Apparently they all do the same thing but we would recommend doing a bit of research to see which ones are currently in favour.

We ended up going with Fluvial Tours, a budget operator. The choice was mainly driven by price – Chalalán was a bit of an outlay (although cheaper than the Pantanal) so we wanted to squeeze in another trip on the cheap.

Sunrise over the pampas.

The whole tour takes place in Pampas del Yacuma National Park, a protected area three hours drive northeast of Rurrenabaque. The tour was unique for us in that it was confined to the river. All travel is by boat, with accommodation provided by a series of lodges along the banks.

Travelling on the river is like cruising through an animal theme park. We saw many storks, herons, turtles, caimans and large capybara. The first afternoon was spent slowly cruising up the river to our lodgings. It was a beautiful day and very relaxing.

Chillin.

Fun with filters. A vulture soars above us.

The herons were quite striking. They are large, graceful birds and very photogenic.

We wrapped up two hours on the river with sunset beers. A nice opportunity to meet people and to watch as dopey tourists found their Dutch courage and got close to a caiman (no-one was harmed).

Searching for Anacondas

The next day we went in search of anacondas. This required a full morning trudging through marshlands in search of the python. Unfortunately we were unsuccesful but we knew in advance the chances were 50/50. It didn't help that our guides were not very informative and after some time our guide actually lost us. We wandered around for awhile, then decided to head back to where the boats were on the river. We eventually caught up with him back at the boat but no apology was given, which we thought was pretty slack given that he was supposed to help us find the anacondas!

Muy macho.

The land alternated between knee high water and dry grass islands.

The good news is we later found anacondas in a park in Trinidad. There are five of them in a cage near the military airstrip, much easier than trudging through the marshes!

Swimming with Dolphins

Everybody likes the idea of swimming with dolphins, and these dolphins are special. They are pink! The Amazon River Dolphin can be found throughout the Amazon Basin in South America in fresh water rivers. The dolphins have been there since South America was covered by a salt water sea, and got stuck in the basin when the sea receded.

They are a slightly stubby (uglier) version of the dolphins you might see in the ocean and are practically blind due to the murky river water. As a result, swimming with them is not as romantic as it sounds, and we heard several stories of people being bitten on their hands and feet while they were splashing around in the river. We jumped in the water when they were close by, but didn't get too close. They are quite shy and are after all wild animals. Still, it was a exciting experience to be swimming in a river in the Amazon surrounded by pink dolphins, caiman and piranhas!

Fishing for Piranhas

Another big draw is the opportunity to catch piranhas. Now, we'll be frank about this one. Piranhas are actually quite small and are not the flesh eating beasties you might believe them to be. Very anticlimactic. Still, they are infamous and people want to catch them. We gave it a go but the little buggers kept wriggling off the line (hooks were too big). We caught a few sardines and a catfish but otherwise were unlucky. Don't go out of your way for this experience.

Our guide with a little cat fish.

Monkeys Everywhere

We were surprised at the number of monkeys we saw. Our camp lodgings were visited by a pack of yellow squirrel monkeys several times a day. They would run along the hand rails and two even got inside a dorm room. We also saw kapuchin and howler monkeys several times.

A yellow squirrel monkey looking to snatch some food.

Howler monkeys staring at those funny homo sapiens.

All in all it was a good time. It was more social than Chalalán due to the mingling with other groups but we saw less animal species, although the ones we did see were in abundance. We would recommend a trip, it is good fun but bear in mind that they churn through tourists here and the wildlife is not always respected as it should be. Also, the guides may disappoint. We can't provide names of some the animals we saw because we never learnt them!

A Tiger Heron.

Two jabirus in their nest.

A capybara on the river bank. They seemed to be bigger here than in the Pantanal.

 


Bolivian Amazon: Jungle

Having had our fill of the altiplano it was time to get a taste of the epic Amazon Basin. Most often associated with Brazil, the Basin actually covers more than half of Bolivia. Surprisingly, this part of Bolivia is not very popular with tourists, who tend to limit themselves to a short visit, if they go at all.

There are two main entry points to the Basin: Rurrenabaque and Trinidad. We opted for Rurrenabaque as it was closest to La Paz. Our plan was to use Rurrenabaque as a launching point for a trip to the jungle and the pampas (grass wetlands). We then planned to fly to Trinidad, from where we would travel to San Ignacio de Moxos and see what Lonely Planet has claimed is the best cultural festival in the Amazon.

The Jungle of Madidi National Park

The flight from La Paz to Rurrenabaque is beautiful, passing over snow capped mountains, winding rivers and endless jungle. Getting out of the tiny plane in the palm tree-lined airport and being instantly confronted with the humidity and heat was a shock to the system after the freezing cold altiplano, but it also felt like paradise.

We wanted to do a jungle tour and after looking into our options, decided to go with Chalalán Ecolodge. A key selling point was that Chalalán is five hours up river and consequently goes deeper into the jungle of Madidi National Park than other tours. Also, Chalalán is rated by National Geographic as one of the top fifty ecolodges in the world (and its the most affordable of the pick), so we thought that sounded like a great opportunity to do something special.

We spent the night in Rurrenabaque enjoying local fresh fish and caipirinhas (its good to be so close to Brazil!). Our guide Rico picked us up early the next morning, along with our trekking companions Madeleine, Ruth and Simon, and we set off in our little banana boat.

The jungle exhales after a night of rain.

The lodge is accessed from the Rio Tuichi, which branches off the larger Rio Beni. The boat trip is stunning. We were able to see capybaras, monkeys, caiman, turtles, as well as many different types of water birds and birds of prey (there is a list at the end for those that love lists!). We had seen many of these animals and birds before while we were in the Pantanal, but it was wonderful to see them again in a different environment. Check out our posts on the Pantanal to see the photos.

Arriving at Chalalan.

We arrived at Chalalán around lunch time and were met by a group of happy guys from the local community who thankfully helped us carry our bags the 2km walk to the lodge.

Within minutes of getting out of the boat we were surrounded by colourful butterflies, a snake (which turned out to be a Ferdiland snake, the second most venemous snake in the area!), beetles, tree-cutter ants, birds and the distant sound of howler monkeys. There was a definate sense of sharing space with nature, and the constant noise of the jungle reminds you that there is so much life around you. It was quite amazing!

Cow Bird; Butterfly; Tree Cutter Ants.

Chalalán is set on a lagoon amongst beautiful rainforest. The Ecolodge was established by the local indigenous community of San José de Uchupiamonas. The community decided to set up the lodge in the early 1990s as a way to earn money, provide jobs and development for their community whilst also protecting and preserving their land and culture. They worked with many people to secure funding, including an Israeli man who helped write a proposal and get funding from Conservation International and the Interamerican Development Bank. With this money, they were able to build lodges in their traditional style, train members of the community in business and hospitality, and market the ecolodge to tourists. The community is now fully responsible for running the business of Chalalán Ecolodge and through this has ensured that their culture and environment will live on for future generations.

Sleeping huts and canoes by the lagoon at Chalalán Ecolodge.


Chalalán Lagoon. We went out on the lagoon every afternoon.

We spent four days/three nights at Chalalán occupying our day looking for animals by walking through the jungle or rowing around the lagoon. The day was broken up into a morning walk, an afternoon siesta, a twilight walk and paddle and a night walk. Basically we were given plenty of opportunities to see the flora and fauna.

A Meeting with Monkeys

It was on the afternoon of our first day that we had our first close encounter with monkeys. We were paddling out on the lagoon when Rico guided us to a spot that the monkeys like to visit at twilight. We watched with joy as yellow squirrel monkeys popped out of the thick vegetation. They were followed by kapuchin monkeys, affectionally known as cappuccino monkeys because of their brown colouring.

They came right down to the water, precariously hanging off drooping branches before spinning around and scampering back up the tree. It was great fun and provided us with good photo opportunities.

Things almost came to a bad end though – Mark spotted a caiman gliding in under a low hanging branch. Two yellow squirrel monkeys were less than a metre from the water's surface, oblivious to the arrival of a predator. We waited with baited breath but, possibly because of our presence, the caiman did not make a move. A National Geographic moment was averted!

Brown Kapuchin Monkeys and Yellow Squirrel Monkeys.

More Monkey Madness

On the second day we went on a five hour loop walk to try and find spider monkeys. The jungle was quiet though and apart from the startled bolt of a tapir, the morning was fairly uneventful. Eventually we reached a small cliff and began following it to the right. Soon we heard the unmistakable sound of a holwer monkey giving voice to his throaty growl.

 

We flipped into stealth mode and began creeping in the direction of the howl. We crossed into a thicket and all of a sudden sound exploded all around us! The trees above us were shaking with the movement of several packs of monkeys, moving together in a raucous wave.

We recognised the distinct high pitched squeek of the yellow squirrel monkey, accompanied by kapuchin monkeys. Then Rico yelled out to us – he had spotted a spider monkey! Now we were running through the jungle trying to keep up with spider monkeys, who with their long arms and tails were quickly swinging through the canopy. Surprisingly no-one ran into a tree.

It was an exhilerating experience. Four different species of monkey all in one spot! Magic. The howler monkeys had gone quiet but our guide managed to spot them in a tall tree. A couple of them came down to the lower branches to get a good look at us and we found ourselves at the receiving end of a sightseeing experience.

Wandering through the rainforest looking for animals.

Stalking White Lipped Peccarys

On the third day we were making our way around the northern side of the lagoon when we heard the grunts of wild pigs, or peccarys. Rico signalled for us to crouch down behind trees and we went into our best stealth mode. These pigs have been known to surround people and kill them, and had done so to one of the local members of the community not that long ago. Even jaguars are wary – they have learnt to pick off strays at the back of the pack to avoid getting mauled. We looked around for trees to climb, but were not that convinced we would get up any quickly enough if we were surrounded by angry pigs!

Rico had cleverly predicted that they would come up the slope and cross our path. We waited and waited as the sound of twigs snapping and pigs grunting became louder. There seemed to be a lot of them…

It was really exciting when they finally appeared. At first they didn't notice us, but a male eventually did and we found ourselves being stared down! Time literally stopped. He was so close we could almost count the white hairs on his snout. Fortunately he decided we weren't a threat and we watched in amazement as around 100 peccarys passed in front of us. There were so many, from huge males to tiny babies running after their mothers. It was impossible to get a good photo in poor lighting while crouching under a tree hiding from a herd of pigs, but we tried!

Walking through the jungle; herds of peccary rushing past; Mark in the rainforest; mushrooms.

We spent plenty of time searching for animals, which we could sometimes hear but not see. We found a hole in a tree where an ocelot sleeps and saw lots of holes in the ground that had been abandoned by armadillos. We heard tapirs from a distance, saw jaguar and puma tracks a short walk from the lodge, but we were unable to actually catch a glimpse. It rained quite a lot while we were there, which made it difficult to see the animals because they too wanted to get out of the cold weather.

Jaguar footprints.

Creepy Crawlies

Many of the animals in the jungle only come out at night so we ventured out after dark to see what we could find. Mark was struck by a bout of Australasian stupidity and went out only wearing thongs (aka jandals or flip flops). This quickly proved a bad idea when we came across a coral snake within five minutes. In fact it was an eventful night: we saw an amazon tree boa in Madeleine's roof and along the track Rico introduced us to a giant black tarantula (as big as a man's hand). We also saw a golden orb spider, false scorpion spider, spitting spider (20cm range), tiger spider, plus lots of other creepy crawlies. Ironically, Madeleine and Saskia were bitten by hundreds of tiny ants despite the fact that they were wearing shoes and socks and Mark didn't get bitten at all!

Golden Orb Spider.


Snakes and spiders everywhere! Clockwise from top left: Tiger Spider, Amazon Tree Boa, Black Tarantula, Tiger Spider, False Scorpion Spider and Coral Snake.

Green Things

The plant life was abundant and dominated the landscape. Some of the trees are really unusual. The walking tree, for example, can shift its location to better catch sunlight. It does this by growing new roots, similar to a mangrove tree, which it slowly shifts its weight onto (see the photo below). The strangler fig is a parasitic plant that slowly grows around a host, then seals it off from light. The host then rots away inside. Brutal.

The lodge itself is made out of local mahogany, which remain in the park thanks to the vigilance of the locals, and we saw huge 200 year old cedar trees. Rico also pointed out the medicinal uses of various plants and fungi and warned us about which ones not to touch.

The roots of this tree spread up to ten metres along the ground.

The tree roots are actually very shallow because there are no nutrients deep in the soil. As a result we were constantly stepping over roots. One species of tree had red roots, creating the impression of being the veins of the jungle.

Vines and orchards live on other trees, some of which are incredibly old.

In addition to the many walking tracks around the lodge, we also had the opportunity to use the canoes on the lagoon. This provided a quiet way to approach monkeys in the trees and to see birds flying over the top of the canopy. We also went swimming from the pier to the amusement of most other guests who were too scared to go jumping in the water when there were caiman close by. We weren't scared…those caiman have got nothing on crocs in Australia!

Top: Mark paddling the canoe with Rico and Madeleine; Bottom: Simon and Ruth look for monkeys in the trees from their canoe.

All that would have been great but the staff arranged a cultural night for us. We had a traditional dinner, with fish cooked in coconut milk and wrapped in banana leaves (also a common way of cooking fish in the Pacific). We learnt about community traditions and how to make an offering to mother earth, or pachamama. This involed taking a shot of 'puma milk', a combination of singani, milk, cinnamon bark, sugar and hot water. Suffice to say it is one drink the world could do without. We spent the rest of the night dancing with the staff to traditional music, which was lots of fun!

Traditional music; coca leaves and baby puma milk; fish in coconut milk wrapped in banana leaves.

Overall, our experience at Chalalán was wonderful and we highly recommended a visit if you ever have the opportunity!

 

The Lists

So as promised we have included a list of the wildlife we saw, many of which are not mentioned above. Might be helpful for peeps weighing up whether to make the trip.

Monkeys

Note that about 12 species of monkey are endemic to the Park.

  • Howler monkey
  • Kapuchin monkey
  • Night monkey
  • Spider monkey
  • Yellow squirrel monkey

Spiders

  • Black tarantula
  • Brown/banana spider
  • False scorpion spider
  • Golden orb spider
  • Golden silk spider
  • Spitting spider
  • Tiger spider

Snakes

  • Amazon tree boa
  • Common musarana snake
  • Coral snake
  • Ferdiland snake

Birds

According to Wikipedia the Park has over 1,000 bird species, representing 11% of the world’s 9,000 bird species.

  • Amazon kingfisher
  • Blue heron
  • Cap heron
  • White necked heron
  • Rufescent tiger heron
  • Grey egret
  • Snowy egret
  • Chestnut fronted macaw
  • Red and green macaw
  • Blue and yellow macaw
  • Blue headed parrot
  • Black winged vulture
  • King vulture
  • Whitewing swallow
  • Crimson crested woodpecker
  • Russelback arapendula
  • Chachalaca
  • Hoatzin (cow bird)
  • Blue throated pipe pidgeon/guan
  • Cormorants
  • Tucans (not sure which types)
  • One badass harpy eagle

The rest

  • Red deer
  • White lipped peccary
  • Caiman
  • Capybara
  • Turtles
  • Amazon tree frog
  • Many butterflies, moths, beetles and a centipede

 


Macabre La Paz

The overnight bus from Sucre to La Paz was far from comfortable, and we arrived early in the city exhausted, cold, and suffering from altitude sickness. Our first impression of La Paz was not helped by the fact that they had a public holiday the day before, and the previous night's revelry left the streets filthy, smelling like one giant toilet. Needless to say, we were not particularly inspired to go exploring, and instead went to bed feeling sorry for ourselves.

La Paz from El Alto.

The next day we decided to organise a city tour to see the highlights in one go, rather than trying to find the motivation to do it ourselves. This turned out to be the perfect solution! We found a cool guy called Ben who runs Banjo Tours around La Paz. There are free walking tours, but they only go around the central city, which we figured we could just do ourselves. This tour went off the beaten track, taking us through different areas of the city by walking, on local buses and in a private van. Highlights included a lesson on the dark history of the city, a visit to San Pedro Prison, being blessed by a shaman, wandering through the witch's market, having our fortunes told, and returning to the city for some traditional food and drink. It was a bizarre day, but totally worth paying for a guided tour to get that extra insight into such a crazy place!

Main Plaza with the buildings of Parliament to the left.

La Paz – not so peaceful!

We began our tour wandering through the old colonial streets of La Paz. There is a clear divide where the Spanish town stopped and the indigenous town started, which was exaggerated to the point that until recently, indigenous people in traditional dress were not even allowed in the main plaza. Things have progressed with the election of the country's first indigenous President Evo Morales in 2006, but La Paz has a dark history that is still in most people's recent memory.

Walking around the main plaza, our guide pointed out bullet holes in the buildings surrounding us. In 2003 the police went on strike in La Paz. This was dealt with by the military stepping in with orders to shoot anyone who resisted, including the police. Not something you would expect just ten years ago, but these things don't always get highlighted in international media in the same way that they would if something similar happened in a western country.

We also passed by several dilapidated buildings, which looked abandoned. While most people may have presumed that they were in fact empty, it was recently brought to light that these buildings are being used as “suicide houses”. Apparently, the idea is that anyone who has lost the will to live (mostly homeless people or drug and alcohol addicts) will go to one of these houses where they will be put in a room with a bucket of alcohol, which they drink until it kills them. Being practical, I asked what they do with the bodies without raising suspicions (given there is a police station right across the road)?

Good question. Apparently there is somewhat of a black market for human bodies (dead or unconscious) to be used as sacrifices in construction in a similar way to the llama foetuses that bring good luck to the foundations of building sites. While we were in La Paz we heard various people talking about stories that they had heard regarding this issue. Its all a bit hard to believe that is would really happen, but in a place like La Paz, you just never know.

Parliament House flies the indigenous flag alongside the flags of Bolivia and La Paz.

Bullet holes in the walls around the main plaza; security guards at Parliament House.

San Pedro Prison

We stopped by San Pedro prison, which was made famous in Rusty Young's book Marching Powder. The book follows the story of an Englishman arrested for trafficking cocaine in Bolivia, who spends several years in the unique social environment that is San Pedro prison. Our guide pointed out that there are security towers on each side of the block where the prison sits, however they are not manned as the prison is essentially independent of external guidance and security.

Prisoners buy and live in apartments in different areas of the prison, depending on how much money they have. Wealthy prisoners (mostly corrupt politicians and drug traffickers) have cable televison and all the comforts of home – including being allowed to have their families live with them. Until recently there were children living inside the prison with their parents, leaving the complex to go to school during the day and returning at night. An incident where a young girl was raped led to all the children being removed just a few weeks before we were there.

It was possible to go inside the prison on a tour until recently as well, however, another incident (where two tourists were separated from the group and raped) led to the authorities stepping in and stopping it from becoming a tourist circus. It is afterall a prison with convicted criminals inside. As such, we only saw it from the street, which was interesting enough after having read Marching Powder.

San Pedro Prison.

Shaman Blessing

We took a van up to a lookout over the whole city, with stunning views of the mountains in the distance. It was here that we were going to be blessed by a shaman in a commonly used change of luck ceremony. We were told to sit and wait while the shaman made a fashionably late entrance.

A women lit coals on a burner while he arranged various stones, small parcels of herbs wrapped in paper and little bottles of liquid. He gave out different things to people eg. one guy had a rock up his sleeve, another held a piece of rope. I was lucky enough to be chosen to have a parcel of herbs put into the front of my shirt (which he later retrieved and burnt).

The ceremony combined traditional indigenous customs with a Christian blessing. He used the bottles of liquid (alcohol) to create puffs of smoke and fire, touched us on the head, blessing us all with luck and well wishes for our family and for our travels, all the while repeating what sounded like a Christian Hail Mary.

A clash of cultures during a shaman blessing.

What made the shaman ceremony even more surreal was the guy in the background wearing a mexican wrestling mask, repeatedly yelling into the camera to make what we presumed was a promotional video. So random!
Witch's Market

We continued in the van to El Alto, which is a separate city from La Paz located on the steep surrounding mountain. It is one of the more dangerous places and not many tourists go here by themselves. Apparently it gets pretty violent at night, but during the day it seemed fine. The markets are the initial wholesale supply area for the city of La Paz, so they were packed with fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, fish, meat, spices, nuts, popcorn, popped pasta and all sorts of other unidentifiable things.

Th infamous Witch's Market is also located in El Alto (a smaller touristy version can be found in the central city of La Paz). Here you can find all manner of spells, herbs, llama foetuses, llama babies, wax figurines, starfish, and armadillos, all to be burnt on fires for change of luck ceremonies and rituals. There are spells for everything. A truck driver might go in and buy a wax figure of a truck, with a selection of herbs and spices, to be burnt for safe travels. The dead llama babies and foetuses are used for good luck in construction, to be buried in the foundations, and are surprisingly expensive. But this is big business and people pay for it because they believe in it!

We wandered around the market stalls, looking in awe and horror at the selection of spells for sale. It was a really interesting insight into Bolivian culture, and definitely not something you see everyday!

Tiny llama.

Take your pick - make a spell show bag!

Choosing the right spells is serious business.

Fortune Teller


Our tour included having our fortune read by a local shaman. There were six of us in the group, and we all huddled inside a tiny room where the shaman sat at a desk with a human skull and dead armadillo sitting next to him on a shelf. He looked at us all, and rather than do a fortune for each of us, decided to do it collectively for the group. Before he began he explained how he had become a shaman after being struck by lightning and finding spiritual power.

 

The ritual began when the shaman scattered coca leaves over a cloth, picked a few up, and told us we would all have money in our futures (is that because we were all tourists who clearly had more money than the average Bolivian?). He also told us that one of us would be the victim of an envious person, but we could change our luck by buying one of the spells from the Witch's Market and having a shaman burn it while performing a ceremony (as we had experienced earlier in the day). There wasn't much more to it than that. We were all a little sceptical, and his legitimacy was not helped by the fact that he was clearly drunk and could barely speak coherently.

Despite the obvious business connection between buying spells and having shamans perform rituals, the local Bolivian people are really superstitious and they truly believe in all of this. There are shamans everywhere, and it is not a subject taken lightly. Many people have combined worship of saints and Christian holidays into their spells and rituals, but the missionaries did not succeed in changing the local beliefs entirely. The strength of the indigenous culture is really evident here.

We returned to the city as it was getting dark. Ben shouted us a giant Bolivian cheese empanada and some chicha, which is a thick, warm, purple corn drink. We said our farewells to the group and wandered off in search of dinner. Mark was cold so he bought a poncho, then we stumbled across more festivities for no apparent reason. There were people singing and dancing in traditional costumes out the front of the San Francisco Church. We stopped for a quick look, then went back to the hostel to contemplate what was one of the most bizarre days we have had in South America over a nice cold beer.

New poncho!