Heading into rural Bolivia

Our time in Sucre with fine wine, meals and European luxury was over and we picked up a microbus, doors swinging open when people shout “Paro” and ended up by a connection terminal with enough time to finally pick up a new SIM card for the m0bile.  We had finally lost all hope that a Claro SIM works in all South American countries.

After waiting for another “micro”- small minibus kind of van – to fill up we climbed up a hill that led out of Sucre and had a last look at the city white washed with the many church tops poking out from the rest of the buldings with colonial pride.  We knew we were heading into the wilderness when the bus stopped to talk to a campesino (indigenous farmer) man who had set up a rope-based blockade, in an attempt for the campesinos to regain control of the countryside, due to the ever mounting problems of farm production in the country.  Suddenly we felt like, for the first time in South America, we were finally off the beaten track and heading out into the wilderness.

We followed the train line that had long since been disused, covered in sections by mounds of red sandy mud that is used to be ultimately pressed into bricks.  Alongside the trainline was the gas line that also followed the same route winding off into the distance and made us feel, on the new paved road, that we were on a definate vein linking the cities and countryside with all the vital things that were needed.

We arrived in Tarabuco at 10:30 am and took Gerrard´s – the french guy we met in Uyuni – advice to visit the tourist information to figure out how we can make our onwards journey towards Samaipata using the now sparse bus network.

Being a Monday we missed the very famous market so Tarabuco was quiet with the exception of some new paving being laid in front of the “Gobenero Municipal” building that we needed.  The tourist information was pretty useless, but gave us a map of Tarabuco and read out what was in the tour books in Spanish.  At this point it is lucky that our Spanish is now adept enough to be able to have full conversations about when, where and how to get around.  We decided to move on the same day, instead of staying in a grotty “alojamiento” (cheap hostel) with no water and queeky, saggy beds that have no resistance to weight due to their antiquity.  We did go to the market though, as we had 5 hours to kill before trying to catch the only bus of the day to Icla.  The market was almost empty with the exception of one lady who was selling coffee, which Laura had and a lady selling Pollo Picante, a regional dish, which is fried chicken in a spicey chilli sauce.  That “filled a hole” as they say and Laura´s, what turned out to be aloholic coffee washed it down well.  The warmth of the pure alcohol they use, with warmth from the chilli with the warmth of the sun was a complimentary situation.

We had a brief wander around the dusty streets before heading back to the main plaza to wait for the bus and read our respective books.  The bus was reputedly due to arrive at 2pm from some sources to 3 and even 4pm, and there was a risk we would not be able to catch it for being full, but at 2:30pm the bus rolled in and had plenty of space.  Our fears of waiting for 5 hours and it not turn up or be ful etc, were not justified and we were then excited to be on a bus full of campesinos heading out into the very rural countryside.  Yet surprisingly we saw a few villages en route that had new looking roofs, painted walls that were not just of adobe bricks.  This is not usual in the country, so I wondered what was going on.  I guess they are making more money than I realised?

We wound around the tight switch backs and rattled along the dirt road passing towers of clay, eroded into amazing looking termite mounds , some with holes all the way through them to make an alien landscape.  Laura´s head was rolling around as much as the bus as we smoked our way into Icla.  First impressions were that this is the first place that has water.  The mountains surrounding this tiny village clearly directs all the water into the valley where it is based, so we finally arrived in a small place that has greenery, trees and more wildlife, surrounded by a vast region full of the browns and yellows indicative of drought. An oasis of a place surrounded by mountains of different, individual colours.  One red, blue/grey and yellow all next to each other!

Our first task was accomodation, so we headed to the hospital before the church, the best places to go if tourist acommodation is non existent.  But we met a nurse on the way who directed us back to the bus stop where the only place to stay existed.  We asked to see the room and bracing ourselves for a dump, were amazed at new wooden beds, clean floors, painted and new looking walls.  The lovely lady also charged us per bed rather than per person like most other places.  This meant that we had a lovely room for just 15bs (1 pound 50) per night with a beautiful verrandah (did you know that word is Hindi? random knowledge for you!) looking out over the surrounding mountains.  The extra good news was that when we asked the lady said we could use her kitchen, that she has a fully stocked shop with cold beer AND that she has a restaurant!  So basically we are completely set up and with a cold beer in hand toast at a complete winning situation in all respects.  It is great when that happens, especially in a place where it is more difficult to achieve e.g. the country!

That evening as it is getting late and despite buying some dried food from the market in Sucre to cook up, with our aluminium plate and pot from India we decided to have a meal in the restuarant.  Here we discovered Bolivian, I´ll call it sticky rice, buit it has the consistency of rice pudding.  It also contains melted butter and cheese.  I thought it had been over cooked, but later learned this is the way it is supposed to be.  Complete with the usual “carne and ensalata” we are getting used to the carb heavy Bolivian diet.

Day 1 and as we have to make each of our short trips through the country fairly short decide to go for a trek on the first day and try to find the fossilised dinosaur tracks that we see on all the tourist maps and at the tourist information centres in Sucre.  One map claims they are near, just “2km away from the pueblo of Icla”.  We were advised by our host that the church pastor is from the United States and would know where they are.  We headed out to find the pastor´s house.  Let´s hope he is ok with random visits from Gringos!

First we stopped off at the hospital and were given directions, but they were not easy.  The conclusion was we needed to catch a bus that comes at 5pm every day for 20km, stay the night as you then needed to walk steeply uphill for 4 hours to reach a pine forest and they are around there somewhere.  So this well publicised attraction has zero infrastructure and is miss advertised.  Crazy.  Either way we were directed to the pastors house who confirmed our suspicions, but gave us a suggestion of a good trek through the river gorge and was warmly welcoming.  Pastor (Mike) and his wife Sarah who also came out to chat with their two girls were clearly insightful abour Bolivia as Sarah had lived here all her life despite still remaining very American.  We were invited to dinner and advised to keep an eye out to the sky as when the river “comes through” it surges at 6- 9 feet deep as a massive wave, and one indigenous girl was swept away and eventually found in Paraguy!  So we set off armed with new knowledge, dried food our pan and a lot of sun cream on.

Following a grazing tail up a steep hill above Icla we reached a church graveyard and small white washed chapel the relatively sized to this small pueblo.  Mike informed us that excavation work had been done recently and that has unearthed numerous pre-hispanic graves and pottery.  He was right as well, amongst Llama skeletal remains there were human bones too and many pieces of died pottery pieces, some almost complete.  The place was like a tresure trove from the past and we took a few small pieces of different design as there were so many around and because the excavations were distroying them anyway.  I also found a fossilised whole shell to add to the mix.  After an encounter with being an archeologist we turned back to being trekkers and crunched down on dying grasses and through a low cacti field down to the next small group of houses and shop where we could enter the river system.

Before we climbed down into the parched river bed we collected walking sticks and wood to make our lunchtime fire and began to walk down the river with the now towering walls of sedimentary rock on each side.  It really felt like something out of a western.  We followed the winding curves close to the little water flow to stay near smaller rocks, to make walking easier and tried to stay out of the baking sun.  Wrapping a sarong around my head and coverng it in water keeps you immensely cool in intense sun as I learnt in India, so this was adpted again to protect from the non-stop radiation.  Ledges in the wall jutted out to provide some shade.  Birds including parakeets were squalking overhead, noisily entering and leaving their nests built into the cliff wall.  Eagles circled over head, examining the aloe vera and cacti protruding from the 30 meter river wall.  The river was at least 10 meters wide at the start, but was slowly reducing.  We eventually made camp on a rock and built a fire for our noodle lunch.  We took dubious water from the river, which was slightly green but boiled it for the necessary 8 minutes to kill off parasites while Laura carved us a “twirling stick like fork” suitable for twirling noodles.  It was good to rest as we had already been walking for 3 hours.

Continuing on we saw a sight that was familiar from the tourist information in Sucre, although it has since become aparrent that very few people make it to Icla.  The sand rock bed now dropped via a waterfall into a solid rock gorge that had been carved out through the intense surge of the river in rainy season. 2 waterfalls in sucession had carved out smooth gutters that led to 2 pools ideal for us to strip off and have a bathe to cool down.  Cool down we did, as it was chilly water to say the least!

The river, now reduced to around 3- 4 meters in width started filling up a bit and we had to navigate deeper parts through some clinging on a shuffling along ledges acrobatics.  Soon though it was getting deeper and we knew our path was ending.  That didn´t stop us marvelling at the scars and formations created through years of water erosion.

We ended up at the fork in the river where two rivers converge and it was now too deep to navigate.  Our final foray was to get out of a 10 meter high wall, with smooth curved and protruding parts giving some kind of wall climbing wall feel to it.  Rock climbing has never been my forte, but we managed to both get out ok with a few stretched manouvers to be proud of.

We then took a path pointed out by 2 local kids who were pretty amazed at the sight of 2 gringos emerging from a river system and ended up making it out with enough time to get changed for dinner with our new missionary friends.

Dinner was fab, tacos and chocolate brownies American style!  We were both in heaven!  It was really interesting to discuss all things Bolivian, as these guys clearly had a very informed perspective on things and get exposure to lots of different people.  They told of the stories of corruption and slow, illogial pace at how things in Bolivia progressed.  Mike told me of the water supply issue and the local debate of how water should be distributed in the community.  Bolivia aparrently has a poor education system, but that they have an all night parents evening every month.  They are building their house now and despite the draw backs they point out moving somewhere like Icla (providing a few necessaries for work are met) is appealing to us both.  People here are friendly and everyone says hello to you.

The next day we decided to slack off the mission to find the dinosaur tracks and to go for a short walk around the town.  It was so hot that we decided that just an hour short hike out to overlook the town was enough before heading back to make some food for ourselves, a task we enjoy using local ingredients and getting creative with what to eat, depending what is most cheaply available in the shop you are in.  Today was pasta and vegetables, which was great and our hosts approved of our cooking skills, despite us feeling bad that they were also cooking for guests and we were under their feet rather than buying the food they were offering.  At this point though we could and did explain our innocent motives.

Then we decided to relax on the verrandah for the rest of the afternoon to relax as we had been offered an early ride out the next day by Mike, which would lessen the complication and cost of getting back to Tarabuco.  As such we enjoyed the rest of the day in the sun, with a beer or two until a massive storm broke out and pulsed lightning all around us and send rumblings and crashing echoes around the valley.  I was a little excited by the whole occasion one might say.

Soon the time in Icla expired and at 6am next morning met Mike at his house to bail into his truck and out of the beautiful, but perfectly formed Icla.  It was then that I asked about the good quality of the housing that we had seen on the way in and that was also evident in Icla.  It turns out that the goverment gave people money to develop their houses and prevent bug invasions as a reduviid bug “generally found in arid river beds” can carry “Chagas” disease or American Trypanosomiasis, which is a life long disease that ends up giving breathing difficulties and heart problems.  As such this was the governments preventative method and did well to spruce up quite a few communities.  Scary how we had never heard of this disease and yet it is somuch more endemic here than Malaria.  Everyone seems to focus on malaria and yet ignores more common and as distructive diseases.

So more insightful chats ensued until an hour had passed and we were back in Tarabuco, like we had never left.  We arrived much earlier than last time and the only bus we found out was due to be leaving at a similar time as the time before, so lots of time to kill.  A school fair was useful aty doing this for a while, especially when a class of children all pointed at me in awe and said “jesus” while pointing.  What must they have thought makes me chuckle.  Back to the market for more alcoholic coffee, but it seems that is only for midday time and not morning.

We headed off to the road out of town, taking in the ghostly feel of dust blowing down a cracked, uneven dirt road with just a lady heavy with 8 skirts on dragging a child along side her.  In just 10 minutes a truck pulled up and some people started to get on.

Laura went up to find out where they were going and our “choice number 2 destination was en route for them.  So instead of gambling on the bus we joined a campesino couple on a cement truck and juddered off swaying with the load.  This is the best way to travel for sure, open air, sun, cheap, few other passengers driving you to distraction.  ETA was “2-3 hours”, we guessed 4.  Yet soon we hit a road block.  The road was closed for maintainence.  We gave them an hour and guessed around this time to get through.  When that didn´t happen, I asked and didn´t quite expect the 3 hour wait time I received.  So there we were literally in the middle of nowhere, Laura had her hammock out in the back of the truck and I went to scout out water or something from a local farm.  They only had cheap soda for 7bs, but we only had 6, so I gave them a 10p and they were amazed and happy enough about foreign money to give it to me, as well as a glass of chicha.  Chicha is beer made from whote corn.  It looked like highly soiled dish water with bits floating in it.  That said it tastes better than it looks and was a nice bonus.  It was also interesting hearing these truly Andean people speak Quechua and it really is like an Asian language.  It is nasally in nature and sounds almost “snorty” and more primative than a Roman based language.

Eventually with a built up convoy of more than 10 trucks, 2 jeeps and an ambulance we set off through a huge gorge, 500 meters higher than us on one side and 500 meters lower than us on the other.  At that point rocks between tennis and watermelon in size started hurtling down towards us on the road.  A landslide had started from the days works and was pounding the side of the truck.  We kept a sharp eye on anything that might bounce into the back or anything any larger in size!  Soon day gave way to night and the temperature dropped.  Clouds of dust surrounded us and covered us when we were following anything or anything passed us in the other direction to give us a feeling of flying through the clouds, especially after darkness came.  We dug in, found the contours of the cement bags that were still really warm from the days heat and watched as a storm kicked up behind us and was folloing us eastwards along a now dirt road winding further away from the Andean chain to a lower altitude.  We actually managed to sleep for an hour on the warm concrete and woke up with a perfectly clear sky, stars bright as ever with no competing light, just before we fell back to sleep.  We were awoken in Padilla and paid the guy 20bs each, which is just less than a bus price.

Pointed towards the plaza we quickly found the cheapest looking place and moved in quickly, ordered a beer and some nasty, greasy egg bun and chips covered in fat and watery mayo and tomato sauce. I guzzled it though as I was starving from the days long trip that ended up taking 8 hours rather than 3!

We slept fairly well apart from the cockrel that awoke us every hour or so from 3am till we eventually got up at 8am only to find that yet again there was no water.  We needed a shower badly from the dusty night of the truck, so had to use yellow, stale water, which made us feel no better.

We fought to not pay the people 6bs due to the lack of water, which they had promised the night before and left to catch a micro to Valle Serrano that left at 9:30.  We may have stayed, but bar a quaint plaza and church there was little going for Padilla and we felt that it was more scummy that its image portrayed.

The micro journey was stuffy and packed, reminiscent of the “no one else can get on surely!?” journies. I noticed that the ladies wear synthetic material skirts only it seems, probably because when it rains their 5-8(?) layers would be so heavy when it rained.  I also noticed that people getting on the bus would always say “bon dia”, but no one would ever say it back.  Men don´t give up their seats for women either.  Bus journies are a great place to observe the intricacies of foreign social etiquette.  It seems to me that people mistake Bolivians as rude, but I think they simply don´t care for small talk niceties. When I took out my bag of coca to stave off tiredness I received lots of surprised looks, a lady told me that it was good to see a tourist taking coca and that the men were nodding in appreciation, as coca is a sign of support for the country folk politically.

We reach another quaint place, this time slightly bigger, Villa Serrano after 1.5 hours.  The place is busy though and the alojamientos are all full, bar one we were eventually referred to, who had room in an hour.  So we went to the recommended almuerzo (lunch) 3 doors down and had the best 10bs meal yet.  Soup with cream in it and meat that you could chew a cold chicken salad, which makes a change from the usual.  After Laura went back to move us in to our room when the price was suddenly doubled on us (we subsequently saw 3 American girls hanging around outside and were suspect), but left to avoid being ripped off so blatantly.  We were challenged to find somewhere with space cheaper and this came through another recommendation from a proactive stranger.  An unfinished hotel with undecorated room and straw beds, one which looked like a manger.  For just 5bs (50p for the night we didn´t complain).  For the rest of the day beers on the plaza and reading was the order of the day finished with a fast food dinner from a relatively wealthy young couple who owned a pushchair!  We haven´t seen one of these in South America yet!

We went to go for an early night and joined a man on our bus in, who I had helped with his bags on to the roof, the only other person in the room.  We fell asleap but were soon woken by his pig like snoring.  iPod out and back to sleep.  Then 2 hours later we were abruptly woken by another campesino couple coming in.  Bolivians are unable to wisper I am sure of it.  They eventually get settles, light back off and loud talking stops.  An hour later the door is flung open again, light on and a group of 6 then squeeze in, plus one disturbed baby and a boom box that needs plugging in and displaying flashing  lights all night.  Eventually 3 people were snoring, 1 baby was “gaaa´ing” and lights flashing when the cockrel started.  It´s only 1am damn it!

When we sat by the side of the road in the morning we hadn´t slept too much and the coffee shop was closed despite its previous nights quoted opening time having expired.  Instead I opted for a plastic bag of fried pork and potates with mixed salad garnish.  Why not? It´s the local dish and people love eating takeaway out of a plastic bag here.

Then we needed to buy our tickets instead of just having it reserved.  That was when the price doubled again.  I can arge in Spanish fairly well now and “Carrero” or rip off merchant is a good phrase.  I ended up getting the tickets for just 5bs more than the previous nights quote with a reasonably fair price in my view.  The cheek of it though!

We left Villa Serrano on time (35 minutes late) and started our first move north yet.  Soon the humidity started to increase as we made our way lower into the tropical floor.  We wound through the vallies where Che Guavara was escaping from the Bolivian army in his final stand and past where he was finally shot dead.  Going from a valley floor past a river and then up into the heights of a mountain is a surreal experience.  Endless switchback roads through a changing landscape as the temperature cools, then back down into the next humid arid valley.  After an easy and relaxed journey, armed with DIY pate and potato sandwiches we made it to and almost past Samaipata, until Laura reminded the bus driver we needed to get off.

We set off through town warned that things would be closed by one person and busy from our guide book.  Both we half right.  People from Santa Cruz come to Samaipata on the weekend to get away from the city, so it was actually fairly busy, but off season for foreign tourists.  We settled on a slightly more expensive place to stay, called Andorina, owned by a Dutch guy.  The place was very relaxed and rules strict on making noise in the place.  A good hide away from the usual loud Bolivian tourists.  We had decided that we would invest some cash in going on treks in Samaipata as we decided that the Amazon was too expensive for us to embark on this time.  The trouble with this area is that to get into the deepest jungle you need a guide legally.  Another trouble though is that there is no ATM and the only option is a Western Union charging 5%. Ouch.  No warning there from the guide book, which we are realising is not a case of Lonely Planet vs Rough guide etc, but just that they are generally useless for most things.  The first night was all about digging in and checking out the town of Samaipata, before investigating and booking up things we were going to do the following day.

Sunday turned out to be the next day, which was a bit of a surprise, as everything was dead.  We hadn´t brought any money with us from Villa Serrano and so were living off emergency Dollars until we could get cash on Monday.  A german travel agent was open however and we booked a day tour the next day to visit the cloud forest with giant ferns, found out that a zoo 2km away offered horses for day rides at justy 150bs a day (15 pounds!) and also booked an eco-lodge retreat in the middle of sub tropical jungle for 3 days and 2 nights.  Sweet!

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