Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The fish aren't biting

No ridiculously early start today, so we could enjoy our final breakfast at the lodge before heading off to some of the smaller side-streams to try fishing for piranhas. Once again, this sounded more impressive in theory than it was in practice, as what fish there were were bloody tiny and seemed content to nibble at the edges of our bait without actually taking it properly. Still, wasn't too unpleasant sitting in the sun occasionally stringing the line out. Until the sun did a sudden vanishing act and we looked up to see a mass of dark clouds gathered across half the sky. Even Roberto looked faintly perturbed by this, so we packed up in short order and headed back at full speed for the lodge. And not a minute too soon - the rain started just before we got back, and was pelting down quite impressively by the time we had finished getting our bags ready for our departure that afternoon.

We had a bit of time to just chill out in the hammocks before a relatively early last lunch and the order to saddle up - Roberto was determined to take advantage of a break in the weather and get us back to the embarcation point at Santa Rosa as soon as possible. Once there we had a certain amount of "hurry up and wait" to go through until another Indígena vehicle (a Toyota Land Cruiser troop carrier this time) turned up to collect us. We pitched in to get the bags stowed under the tarp on the roof ASAP and then piled into the vehicle, where Jen and I found ourselves amongst those on the bench seats at the back of the troopie - this was ok to start with, but the effort to not slide off the bloody seats as we bounced back into town and the general uncomfortableness meant I was either sore or numb in several important places by the time we eventually got back to Rurre. On the bright side, there was way less mud than before, but the dried track meant more and harder bumps.

Once back in town, we paid a quick first stop at Amaszonas' offices - despite my fears from the day's rain, they were still expecting flights to be running the next day, so I paid a small admin fee and got my flight brought forward to the Wednesday afternoon, and started to dare to hope that I would be spared the bus back. After that, we dumped our bags back at El Curichal, cleaned up a little and then headed out to the bus station, to get the ticket back for Jen, who was, for reasons of budget and , in my opinion, masochism, going back at ground level. With this done, we found an internet cafe with a CD burner so I could make Jen a copy of the photos from the trip (and some from the salt flats) to replace those she had lost with her various departed cameras. Finally it was time for dinner and some drinks, the former courtesy of a little place called La Perla de Rurre, which Roberto had recommended, and the latter at the Moskkito bar, which proudly proclaims itself the "original travellers' bar in Rurre", and turned out to produce some quite pleasant cocktails. And then it was time for bed.

Monday, April 13, 2009

(No) Snakes on the plain

The early night was necessary as we were up at 5:30am to pile back into the boat and head out through the waterways in search of any early risers amongst the wildlife and then to catch the sunrise. In aid of the former, Roberto was poling us along the river so that wildlife wouldn't be scared by the motor noise. Unfortunately, not all groups shared his view, so we were soon overtaken by noisily buzzing boats as other groups headed out from their respective lodges. And it turned out that our caution and attempt at being more ecologically sound cost us slightly, as when we got to the best vantage point for seeing the sunrise unobstructed by trees and the like, it was to find it instead obstructed by a boatload of travellers standing to get the best pictures. Pesky tourists....

After the sun was deemed to have risen sufficiently high that it was no longer worth trying to sneak photos past people's hats, we headed back to the lodge for breakfast, then geared ourselves up for one of the "feature activities" of the trip, going looking for anacondas. Now, those of you familar with said snake might have some of the same reservations I did, to whit, how wise is it to be wading hip-deep through what is effectively a swamp looking for one of the world's biggest snakes, one which is quite capable of consuming a human? My reservations were brushed aside, however, principally by the scorn with which my worries were met by Jen - another occasion on which more backbone might have been handy.

The first step was to pop into one of the other lodges and load up with wellies - like me, the rest of our group were not overly enamoured of destroying some of their only footwear this side of the Atlantic. I didn't hold out too much hope for this, given that I am generally larger than your average Bolivian and that it seemed unlikely that there would be any boots sized for my feet. Imagine my glee and surprise to find that they did indeed have some boots large enough for my oversized paws, and thus that I wouldn't be subjecting my poor Tevas to yet more abuse. Unfortunately, that was the high point in terms of both glee and comfort for the day, as it turned out finding a snake that isn't in the mood to be found in a swamp of high grasses, sucking mud and thigh-deep water is an exercise in futility. One, moreover, punctuated by the attentions of seemingly millions of bloody mosquitoes. Was not a happy bunny by the time we gave it up for a bad idea, not even after seeing a couple of rather large owls.

After we offloaded our boots, went back to the lodge and had lunch, I was finally getting back to my usual affable self and no longer swearing repeatedly as to my opinion of swamps, mosquitoes and snakes. This was good as the afternoon's activity promised to be somewhat more enjoyable, that being to go swimming with pink river dolphins. Now, I'd been a little nervous at the prospect of swimming in a river that I knew also contained caimans (and supposedly anacondas...) but Roberto reassured us that their teritories did not overlap, so we were safe to swim around the dolphins. Not sure I was 100% convinced, but it did enough to get me in the water.
This is where the joys of interacting with wild animal come into play once again, as although we could see them broaching around the lagoon we were in, they almost never felt brave enough or inquisitive enough to actually come up close to us - one of the other guys, Miguel, got splashed a few times by one frisky individual, but otherwise they kept their distance. The water itself was relatively deep, so given my utter lack of talent at swimming I stayed fairly close to the boat anyway, or found a submerged tree whose branch I could use as support. So, no up-close encounter with dolphins, but much more enjoyable than hunting mosquitoes in a swamp!

On the way back, we actually spotted more dolphins, so some of the group piled in for another attempt at getting close, and what with this and making a stop to have a look at a sloth that Roberto had spotted high up in a tree, we once again weren't back in time for sunset, though we were much closer this time. I headed over to the bar at the lodge's mirador, the Pink Dolphin, to get some post-sunset piccies and was surprised to discover that Tash, our Kiwi friend from Rurre, was there having booked herself on a tour the day after us. We had another chance to chat after dinner, when Jen and I joined some of Tash's group in teaching the German couple in their boat the rules of Shithead - that was an amusing test of my German skills, trying to come up with the words for the rules of the backpacker's favourite card game. However, we were interrupted in this by Miguel telling Jen and I that our group was about to head out looking for caimans in the dark. We had either forgotten this or just never been told, so there were several frantic minutes in which we attempted to at least partially insect-proof ourselves and put on some longer clothing before heading out. Again, for one of the feature activities, this was a bit of a damp squib, as Jen and I couldn't see a single caiman during our little cruise (though the others claimed to have seen one at one point). Once we got back, the dining area was closed so Jen and I finished drinking the last of our "babies" in our own enclosure before getting some sleep.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Off to the Pampas

Luckily, the pampas trip was not of the "up and off at crack of dawn" variety, so we had time to get breakfast before we go. This was particularly useful as Jen is actually more attached to her breakfast than I am to mine, so they would have had two very ratty individuals in the jeep had we not been able to feed. We ended up just across the road from where we had eaten the previous day, in a plac called Narguila which turned out to be Israeli Central for Rurre. The food was still good, though.

When we turned up at the office, though, it was to find that we had been merged with another couple of groups - the people who were supposed to be on ours had not made it due to problems with flights from La Paz (déja vu anyone?), and so the two of us from Inca Land were in with people from Indígena and Shayna in a combined group. Thus, all our mucking about and agonising about which company to go with was utterly useless, as we ended up back with a guide from the company (Shayna) we had looked at first, although travelling in a vehicle from Indígena. This latter turned out to be very useful, as the road was in a shocking state but Hugo, our slightly mad driver, ploughed our Nissan Patrol through pretty much anything, also stopping a couple of times to fix another vehicle that was having troubles.

Having watched trucks, pickups and the odd land cruiser getting bogged or otherwise messed up along the way, we weren't all that upset to arrive late at the embarcation point for the boats, on the principle that at least we'd got there. At this juncture, the loss of Jen's hat prior to boarding the bus from Yolosita became slightly more urgent, as the sun was beating down and the boats had a grand total of zero cover. So I succumbed to my occasional chivalrous instincts and lent her my much-abused bush hat, deciding that my bandana would have to suffice for the trip.

And the boat trips, it has to be said, were the best bit of the pampas tour overall - the weather was generally fine, the breeze from our passage kept things comfortable and we saw plenty of wildlife. Jabiru storks gliding majestically over the waters, caiman hiding from the day's heat under bushes, eagles perched on the highest trunks, cormorants diving for fish, ninga-ningas looking frankly ridiculous with their faux-punk feather arrangements on their heads, flapping from bus to bush, and monkeys charging through the greenery to look at our boat and jump on the bow when we got in close and fiddle with the flag-staff from which fluttered the obligatory Bolivian flag. Really, a great way to spend an afternoon.

The only slight downside was that, because we had started so late and seen so much, we didn't make it to the ecolodge in time for sunset, and instead observed it from the river. Not necessarily a bad thing, though slightly less convenient for my attempts to get my usual dozens of photos of the sun's disappearance. Once we finally did make it to the lodge, it was after dark and the mosquitoes were rising in force. Roberto, our guide, pointed out the dorm that the group would be staying in and then pointed me and Jen to a separate "room". "But we're not..." we started, before deciding that actually having out own little enclosure (it's hard to call something of which half the "walls" are mosquito nets a room) would be a good thing in terms of being able to spread out and keep our stuff more secure. Obviously the lady at Inca Land tours had decided we made a nice couple as well. Though in fact, the setup was a twin with mossie nets over each bunk, so quite how much use it would have been to an actual couple is debatable, especially as the aforementioned nets had all the sound-blocking properties of a piece of paper!

It was soon time for dinner, which we took in the dining "room" with the other group who'd arrived the previous night, which turned out to include Terry and Fran, the Irish couple I had met in Coroico. Small world, and all that. After feeding time, Jen and I put paid to another of our "babies" whilst chatting with Roberto about the next day on the trip, and then everyone retired for an early night.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Imaginary Couple

You probably don't need me to tell you that I failed badly to get much sleep, despite Jen nabbing some space in the row in front so I could spread out across the back seats - the unfortunate spacing of the seats, the gaps in between them and the associated pointy bits to dig into my back, ribs etc meant that I had had maybe an hour or so of sleep by the time dawn came and I could see the landscape through which we now bumped and juddered. Jen, meanwhile, slumbered on regardless. The aftermath of this led to my christening her the Dormouse.

We eventually bounced into Rurre around 10:15am, 18 hours or so after leaving Yolosita - this for a journey described in many guidebooks as taking around 13-15 hours, when we didn't even have any major hold-ups. I was by this point doing my familiar post-bus impression of a zombie, and was thus overjoyed when the guesthouse Jen and I had singled out as our preferred choice for the stay turned out to have a lady at the bus waiting to meet people. So we shouldered our packs and headed off across town in the once-more-unfamiliar tropical climate, headed for El Curichal. Here we were to have the first of various experiences of people assuming that the two of us were a couple - once we'd assured the staff that no, we didn't need a cama matrimonial (the wonderful term for a double bed) and a multi-bedded room would in fact be perfect, we dumped our bgs and headed into town to try and sort out our tour for the next day.

I should explain at this point that the principal reason for visiting Rurre is to go on these tours, which are generally classed as either selva (jungle) or pampas (grasslands). The former go into the Parque Nacional Madidi, the latter into the Reserva Municipal Pampas de Yacuma. The former are intended principally for experiencing being in the jungle itself, seeing the plantlife, the latter are far more focused on seeing wildlife, which has rather less places to hide in the savannah grasslands that make up the "pampas". Given that both Jen and I had decided we were more interested in animals than plants as such, the decision to do a pampas tour was a fairly easy one. Somewhat more vexing was working out which of the many operating companies in town to use.

The lady who took us to our guesthouse had recommended one company, Shayna Tours. The guy working around there had recommended another, Donato Tours. Some friends had ben with Indígena Tours and recommended them. Another friend who'd travelled there had suggested looking at Bala Tours. And then, once we finally managed to sort out getting Jen's traveller's cheques (surely these days the most useless thing you can take travelling) cashed, at a hardware store for some unexplained reason, a British ex-pat married to a local lady suggested we try Inca Land Tours. All too confusing, as most of them offer almost the same thing for almost the same price. In the end, we went with Inca Land Tours, after an hour or so trying to work out what the hell to do.

With the essentials for the day done, I retired to our (twin) room and crashed out. Four hours or so of kip later, I felt mostly back to human, and shambled out of bed to find Jen chatting away with one of our fellow guests, a Kiwi lass named Natasha, or Tash to her mates. We sat around, chatted for a bit, exchanged tales of how wonderful the trip down on the bus had been and commiserated about how weird it sometimes feels as an older backpacker surrounded by some of the pubescent wonders who are on the road these days. Then my stomach's rumbling reminded us it was dinner time, so Jen and I headed into town for dinner.

Our eventual choice for food was the Luna Lounge, a funky place with big, wood-beam and thatch roofs and an open-ir dance floor in the middle, but one which, like most of the town, was dead as a dodo on Easter Saturday. However, we were made to feel warmly welcome by a garrulous fellow who marched up to us with the menus, insisted we sit down and then introduced himself as "Johnnie 5". Yes, 80s movie fans, that is as in the robot in the Short Circuit films. Turns out he was the manager. And that it had been his birthday yesterday. And that he was still apparently a wee bit pissed. And that he ordered the waiter, who was having a fit of religion and didn't want to serve alcohol over Easter Weekend, to give us a couple of cocktails at Happy Hour prices. And that he thought we made a very nice couple. "But we're not..." we started to explain, but he was having none of it. Very nice food, though, even if there was some confusion whereby "Johnnie" had taken my order for fish and I got served up with chicken - when I queried this with the waiter, I was told that there was no fish. Hmmm.

After our slightly surreal dinner experience, we stocked up on some supplies for the jungle, notably including a few bottles of vino, and headed back to the guesthouse. Carrying said supplies, notably the bottles, involved cradling the overworked carrier bag to my chest, which Jen decided made me look like I was holding a baby, so our bottles of wine were christened "the babies" for the remainder of our trip. And back at the guesthouse, we promptly set about re-packing our bags so we could fit everything needed into the daypacks, and drank the first baby, chatting with Tash whilst doing so. Nice and chilled.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The road to hell

Having had my dreams of a lie-in once again dashed by what I can only refer to as "that bird", I got my bags cleared out of my room and went for some breakfast at the Back-Stube, the German-owned cafe across from my guesthouse, which proved both tasty and timely, a pleasant exception from the normal rule in Coroico whereby it takes the best part of an hour to produce a plate of pasta. After this, I took final advantage of the internet to write up a spot more of my journal before I headed over to the tour agency who had organised my ticket. There I was greeted by the twin news that they had not, as they announced previously, been able to definitively reserve me the aisle seat that I had requested, and that I was not in fact the only crazed gringo taking the bus journey to end all bus journeys. Or rather, I was the only gringo, but there was a gringa. When she turned up shortly thereafter, I met Jenny for the first time.
As it turned out, what with waiting 20 minutes or so in the back of a minibus whilst they did the usual trick of bellowing the destination at anyone passing in the hope that they would suddenly realise "Oh yes, I really wanted to go to Yolosita and just didn't realise it yet..." and buy a ticket (even weirder than this is that nobody ever turns up until about 30 seconds before the vehicle is due to leave, when suddenly you get swarmed!), and then another 3 hours or so at Yolosita waiting for our bus to make an appearance, we had plenty of chance to get to know each other even before the wonders of the bus trip. In fact, we didn't spend the whole time at Yolosita chatting, as I was nervously hanging around near the police checkpoint, trying to make sure the bus didn't go without us and goggling at the sheer chaos that is Bolivian driving practice. The checkpoint itself consisted of the Bolivian equivalent of PC Plod sat in his little brick hut, operating what Jen and I came to term the "hi-tech Bolivian gate" which blocked the road - said gate consisted of a section of string/rope running across the road; if one loop in it was hooked over the nail on the front of his box, the road was blocked, if the other was hooked on, it hung loose across the road and vehicles could pass. A work of genius. Drivers queueing up behind the rope had to go and show him their papers and once satisfied, he would let them through. However, they were not above charging for the open road whenever the string was down, via the wrong lane of the road if necessary. In fact, as per usual unwritten Bolivian rules of the road, there are always at least 3 lanes of traffic on a 2-lane road anyway, and you'd sometimes see a vehicle coming up the road, waiting for the string to be released and then waiting further whilst all the vehicles in the wrong lane on the other side pulled out into the traffic. Barking. When the bus did finally turn up, it turned out that the details of make, license plate etc we had been given were totally wrong, and we were rushed on as the bus was already an hour and half or so late. In fact, we were so rushed that Jen forgot her flowery hat and the bag of coca leaves that had been kept in it. D'Oh!
Jen works on a very simple principle: she does not want to spend winter in the UK again if she can help it at all, so works for 6 months or so saving whatever she can then runs away for several months over the winter. Nice plan, thinks I (don't worry Mum and Dad, I'm not seriously planning this, honest...). She's also very much of the "wing it" school of travelling, whereas I subscribe to the "practically swallow the guidebook and plan like crazy" school. She's a Londoner and loves the place, I was glad to be out of the Big Smoke. Annoyingly, as I was to find out, she can sleep just about anywhere, including crazily bucking Bolivian buses; as those of you who read regularly will be tired of hearing, I have trouble sleeping on any kind of a bus whatsoever. Still, we got past these difficulties, and actually got along quite well.
Some of that, mind you, may have been due to the "shared peril" scenario of actually surviving the road down to Caranavi. As I mentioned when discussing my trip down the "World's Most Dangerous Road", since the new road got finished, there's little or none of the traffic that got that road its name present any more. What I hadn't realised until about 10 minutes into the journey was that that road very much still exists, in the form of the section from Yolosita to Caranavi. Crazed lorry-drivers, narrow passing points into which the bus must reverse (I was quite glad to only realise afterwards that because we were in the rearmost seats, we were probably hanging out over 400-odd metre vertical drops a few times!), iffy visibility as it got rainy, a delightful surface mix of mud and gravel - all par for the course on this road. And this went on for around 4 hours, as we crawled the 75km into Caranavi. What relief we felt on arrival was tempered slightly by the realisation that Caranavi was a one-horse town missing its horse, that we would not (as we had hoped) be able to buy ourselves some wine to self-anaesthetise, and that the options for food in the vicinity of the bus station consisted of chicken'n'chips, chicken'n'chips, chicken'n'chips or chicken'n'chips. Surprisingly we had chicken'n'chips. I chivalrously left the last beer in the fridge of the restaurant for Jen, but she responded by asking the waiter nicely and he disappeared off to fetch me one, it turns out actually popping into a next-door place to buy it!

Filled up with our spectacularly unhealthy dinner, we gathered our courage and clambered back onto the bus, ready for the onward leg to Rurre. By this time, the light had gone so we could no longer see what potential perils awaited us, but this actually made it a bit more relaxing. Or rather, it would have been relaxing, had the bus not been nouncing and jolting every 10 seconds or so as it growled its way over the ridges towards its destination. Deprived by this less-than-restful motion and the lack of onboard lighting (apart from the seating lights which strobed intermittently in green and red, giving the unwlecome impression of a runaway mobile disco) of the ability to read or anything, Jen and I continued exchanging tales, jokes, philosophies and occasional mild epithets until the next stop, at Yunguyo, by which time it was around 11pm. After this, Jen curled up and miraculously dozed off, whilst I began my regular battle for any kind of rest on the omnibuses of this world.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The calm before the storm

I decided to make full use of having a room to myself and sleep in as late as possible. The rooster in the yard across the alley from my room, unfortunately, decided that the dawn needed to be greeted very enthusiastically, and then embarked on an "anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-
better" crowing contest with a competitor a few houses over that continued, on and off, for the rest of the morning. So I got plenty of time in bed, but rather less sleep than I'd hoped, and the waking hours were spent working out various different recipes for chicken to which I'd like to subject the pesky beast.

Once I emerged from my cocoon, I decided to aid my economy drive by having the set almuerzo at the little local joint down the alley behind the hotel, which resulted in massive bowl of soup plus chicken and rice for about a quid. Result. Although I was subjected to the telenovelas (melodramatic Spanish-language soaps) that the family was watching. Feeling suitably stuffed, I caught up on the internet for a bit, read for a bit, and then decided to make some use of the pool while I had access. Though as it was late afternoon, the weather was cooling and the pool was unheated, I didn't stay in that long. Back in a normally-clothed state and heading out for dinner, I got chatting with a Dutch girl staying at the hotel called Kerrin, and we ended up deciding that if the service was as slow as usual, it'd be better to have someone to talk to whilst waiting, so we might as well go for food together.

After looking around a couple of places, we ended up back at my dinner spot of the night before, where the service was, if anything, even slower, and my food was decidedly uninspiring. Not somewhere I'd recommend. Still, having refuelled, we popped into one of the little corner stores so I could get some supplies for the dreaded bus ride the next day, and some wine for the evening - thus fortified we headed back to the hotel and stayed out chatting on the terrace until the weather closed in and we retired to a little table under cover. Once I'd exhausted the wine, though, and the weather just seemed determined to get worse, we headed back to our rooms and crashed out.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Into the Yungas

One of my other reasons for choosing to stay at the Adventure Brew is the free pancake breakfast. Oh yes, no cold, halfways-stale toast and dulce de fricking leche here, we got pancakes. Thus fortified, I took yet another taxi over to Villa Fatima, where I dumped my main pack with the minibus company and popped over to the road to indulge in more cheap, fresh Bolivian fruit juice. Yum. Eventually, only about 15 minutes late, the company had stopped trying to sell yet more additional tickets and departed, heading via the new road down to Coroico. This would have given me a chance to better enjoy some of the scenery from the early bits of the bike ride, were it not for the truly dismal weather. Ah well, you can't have everything. The final approach to Coroico, from Yolosita (one of the towns down in the valley where the bike rides actually finsh), was dead steep, switch-backing up the side of the ridge on which Coroico perches - as with a fair number of towns in Bolivia, the setting is nothing short of spectacular.

After staggering up the ridge from the bus station to the plaza with my packs on (an activity that would have had me wheezing and on the point of death in La Paz but here just left me a bit hot and bothered), I grabbed some lunch at a little restaurant called Back-Stube (yes, it's co-owned by a German) and then checked myself into the Hostal Kory, a place just over the plaza with a terrace making full use of the amazing views and a decent-sized swimming pool. Luxury indeed, and a single room still only cost me a fiver a night. Bolivia's great! (except some of the buses and roads...)

That afternoon I had a leisurely look around town (it doesn't take long, Coroico's pretty small and the centre is all perched precariously near the ridgeline), sorted my onward ticket to Rurre for Friday through an agent in town, caught up a bit more on my journals, and then went to grab some food at one of the pair of restaurants on the square both called Pizzeria Italia. Utterly unoriginal name, and to be honest the slowest service I've had in Bolivia, which is a reasonable claim to fame. After this I went back to the hotel, where I ended up chatting on the terrace with an Irish couple, Terry and Fran, and a German guy whose name completely escapes me, drinking the odd glass of wine and then heading back to the plaza to play pool above one of the restaurants and then at the Moskkito Bar (their spelling, not mine), which we had to ourselves - normally, that'd be cause to up and leave, but when it means you get to monopolise the pool table, kinda handy. In the end, I left the others there about midnight and headed back, as I was feeling tired again. I must be getting old.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Groundhog Day

An unfortunate case of Groundhog Day. I decided to try and pre-empt the "call back in 15 minutes" syndrome from Amaszonas by actually going to the airport and sitting in front of their desk so that I could not be ignored. So I got up, checked out of Wild Rover (for the 2nd time in 24 hours) and got a radio taxi up to the airport, during which I got yet more Spanish practice in, courtesy of Willy, my affable driver. I have decided that taxis are definitely good for my Spanish. Having arrived at the airport, I was informed by the lass at check-in that, surprise surprise, there were no flights for the morning and I needed to get back to them by 1pm. I informed her that I would be staying in the airport, went to get myself some breakfast from the cafe, and then set up my perch opposite the desk, reading my guidebook. Unfortunately, by around 11am, said lass was coming over and explaining that I had better go back to town, as there were going to be absolutely no flights that day. Bugger.

At this point, I slightly lost my cool and asked the young lady if there were, in fact, going to be any flights to Rurrenabaque that week - unsurprisingly, she replied that she really didn't know what the weather was going to do, and I'd just have to wait or cancel. So I decided to cancel. In a fit of pique, I decided Rurre could go hang, and I'd go to Amazonia in Peru or Ecuador instead, and I hailed another (expensive for Bolivia) taxi back into town, though I changed hostels, reasoning that the Wild Rover would not be the best place for me to make a sensible examination of what needed doing. So instead of a hostel with an Irish pub, I moved to one with a microbrewery, the Adventure Brew. Well, I reckoned it was a step towards good sense, anyway.

A bit of research online revealed the worrying fact that the companies doing equivalent kind of trips to the Amazon region in Peru or Ecuador cost about 3 times as much. Hmmm, thinks I, maybe I have to start thinking the unthinkable and considering the bus ride to Rurre. So I went to chat with the lady at the in-house travel agency at Adventure Brew, who commiserated for my suffering but advised me that at this time of year, maybe 80% of Amszonas' flights get cancelled or moved about for one reason or another. She also advised that the bus to Rurre could be just a bit uncomfortable, or it could be hellish, but realistically it was about the only option I had. So, order of business for the afternoon became (1) go and see the pesky airline and get my refund done and (2) sort myself a bus ticket.

The first item on the list immediately ran foul of siesta, as the office was closed for lunch when I got there. Grumbling about what else could go wrong, I headed off in search of refeshment myself and, disdaining the multitude of offerings of fried chicken, ended up in a little Chinese place called El Dragon Dorado, which was very helpfully showing the Arsenal - Villareal game from the Champions League, so I got a cheap and tasty meal and to watch some football. Clearly things were getting better. They got better yet at Amaszonas, where they helpfully offered to refund just the outbound half of my ticket, and keep the return valid, with a free change of date, meaning I could still hope upon hope that I would only have to take the bus one way.

Now, those of you who read these pages regularly will no doubt be wandering, after all the bus journeys I have done this trip, what had me so spooked about doing another one - after all, a 20-hour bus journey is a 20-hour bus journey, right? Erm, wrong. The road to Rurrenabaque makes use of the parts of the World's Most Dangerous Road which are still in the condition that led to that name being awarded, and then on bumpy, rutted, unsealed roads across the wilds of northern lowland Bolivia. And the buses are pretty poor. Not horrific, not actual chicken-bus poor, but nothing like the attempts at comfort and luxury to be found on mainstream routes. Certainly not something I would want to subject myself to overnight. But it was that, pay through the nose later, or give up on seeing anything of Amazonia. So I resolved to bite the bullet and do it.

However, to try and soften the blow a wee bit, I decided to split the journey a little bit in Coroico, a town near the foot of the mountain bike ride, so my next stop was across town in the suburb of Villa Fatima, from whence said buses depart. Or, to be more precise, minibuses, as the Coroico service actually uses my old friend, the Toyota minivan. Luckily, by booking the night before I managed to get the spot in the front next to the driver, drastically increasing the possibility that I would arrive in Coroico still able to make use of my legs. Having spent much of the afternoon organising this, I hopped in another cab back to the hostel, and this is where I had the "reverse bump start into oncoming traffic" incident that I mentioned before, which resulted in me walking back the last part, a task that took longer than expected due to Plaza Murillo (the square by Parliament and the Presidential Palace) being closed off by riot police due to some of the frequent demonstrations here.

Back at the hostel, I got chatting with a Peruvian guy who had studied in the US called Edi, and a Yank named Pete, a conversation which continued later in the hostel bar, where I got my complimentary nightly glass of their microbrew beer. The company is called Saya, and they brew a handful of beers, of which I tried three that night, the Colonial (they call it a Kolsch, I call it a light summer ale), the Negra (they call it a Bock, I call it mmmm...Malty) and the Stout. I also partook in the night's bar activity, which was Movie Charades - they split us punters into two groups and we had to take it in turns to act out movies picked from a hat. There were supposed to be "punishment shots" when we got things wrong, but everyone got them right for about the first 5 rounds, so they decided to give us the shots anyway! In the end, our team sealed a narrow victory, helped by some truly inspiring mummery (I was quite proud that it only took them about 15 seconds to get me doing "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"!). Some of the guys headed on after this, inspired by Pete's claim that he knew "a really good seedy bar" nearby, whilst I had one of my occasional moments of good sense and headed for the sack.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Cancelled departure

A frustrating day. I got up, packed, checked out and was ready to go to the airport to get my flight to Rurrenabaque. However, on checking with reception, I found that, as happens quite often, the flights were not operating as normal that day. This is principally because Rurre airfield is, in fact, a field. So when it gets soggy, it's not safe to operate a plane from it. Obviously. The airline informed reception that we should check back around 1pm, when they would have the forecast for the afternoon in and have a better idea if any flights would be going. So I headed off to get in some internet time and Skype home. Back at the hostel, I ended up liaising with their travel desk rather than reception, who seemed to get the response, every time they rung Amaszonas, of "not sure yet, call us back in 15 minutes". This went on, on and off, until around 4pm, by which time it was obvious I would not be flying that day, but the airline tried to put me on the 0615 flight the next morning - I refused this and, after some haggling (during which I threatened to cancel the ticket and rebook through the hostel, who showed seats available), they agreed to put me on the 1105 flight the next day. Deja vu. Luckily for me, the laundry service at the hostel was running late, so I just managed to chuck the entire contents of my bag in the wash. I then headed over to the market area to the Vertigo shop, where I picked up my CD of pictures from the trip, then had a look around before grabbing some food at a little Chinese place called Jackie Chan's (yes, really!) and heading back to the hostel.
Turns out Monday night at Wild Rover is Quiz Night. I caught up in the bar with Trif and Cec, two fellow Brits whom I'd originally encountered in Sucre, and when Trif headed off to play pool (after a disagreement with Cec and I over the nature of addictions - don't ask, you don't want to know) we were joined by two other English girls, Amy and Rosie. Stuck for inspiration for a team name, we had a stroke of genius and acronymised or names - Cecily, Rosie, Amy, Pat. CRAP. Had a nice ring to it. Such a nice ring, in fact, that we won the prize for best team name and got given a round of shots for it. Sadly, we didn't win the actual quiz, our academic skills unfortunately being slightly surprisingly let down by a sub-par limbo display by Rosie. At any rate, a fun night was had, and I once again gave in to my less-sober instincts and went on for a post-hostel-closing drink, although this time I was a wee bit more sensible and made it home safe and sound in time to get a reasonable amount of sleep before another attempt at getting my flight.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The World's Most Dangerous Road

Once again reminded of the things I make myself do for fun whilst travelling that I'd never do normally, I was out of the hostel by 6:30am on a Sunday, headed for the rendez-vous of my cycling group at a little cafe called Snack Cordillera. Having been ultra-organised, turns out I was slightly early and had in fact arrived at the same time as the owner, who was just opening up. I got sat down at a table whilst he carried on setting up, and thus experienced a slight sigh of resignation when three loud, very obviously Israeli (this will make sense if you have ever encountered them whilst backpacking) lads came in and sat down at my table. Oh dear. Nothing against individual Israelis, but put them in packs and they can be utter horrors: rude, pushy, obviously insensitive to locals and quite happy to jabber loudly at each other in Hebrew the entire time, freezing out anyone else in the vicinity. And then, salvation - turns out they are with the other company that the proprietor does breakfast for, Radical Rides. This becomes even more of a relief when another 4 of them turn up. Meanwhile, I am joined at the Vertigo table by a Brasilian couple, Paolo and Mariana, and two Germans, Johanna and Alex. I also somehow manage, despite being the first there, to be the last to get my food, but such is life.
By around 8am, our guide, Cello, had turned up (his name is actually Marcelo, but since that is also our other guide for the day's name, his name is, as he puts it, "like the big violin") and we loaded into the company's minibus and headed back, ironically, to the Wild Rover, to pick up the remaining 3 cyclists - 3 more Brits, Mark, Dan and Meghan. Meghan almost wasn't going to go because of stomach upsets she'd been having, but as it was their last day in La Paz so she wouldn't have another chance, decided to give it a go. We trundled up through the upper suburbs of La Paz and out towards the pass at La Cumbre, where, at 4,700m altitude under a slate-grey sky, we got kitted out, being equipped with elbow- and knee-pads, full helmets, balaclavas, semi-water-proof over-trousers and flourescent orange safety jackets. Beautiful. Combined effect of this over the top of my own gear was somewhat akin to crossing the Michelin Man with Darth Vader and painting part of the result orange, but such is life - it still wasn't as unflattering as rafting gear usually is. After a relatively short safety briefing, we were off onto the tarmac of the main road that forms the upper part of the ride. The grey overhead soon turned into drizzle, and this, after we had passed the narcotics checkpoint, into something between a light rain and hail which stung anything exposed - I ended up pulling my goggles up from around my neck, reasoning that even though they tended to fog up, this was better than squinting so hard that my eyes were almost closed! Right from the off, I had been within a couple of riders of Marcelo, who was leading the group, a position I was to stay in for the rest of the ride, surprising myself as much as anyone else with the pace I was keeping. It was also lucky, as it meant I was safely ahead of Mark when his bike took a slide out from under him around one bend in the wet - he was fine, got up and kept going, but that was a wake-up call to stay alert and not take anything for granted given the conditions!
Once we reached the Unduluavi tunnel and the place where we had to get our tickets for the road (the local government assesses this fee to help cover repairs to the road and future provision of toilets and the like given that it is now used almost exclusively by cyclists), we loaded the bikes back up onto the roof of the minibus and piled on in for another 10 minutes or so as we negotiated the only slight uphill section of the road. By the time we were ready to offload and suit up again, we were off the pavement and onto the gravel, and we were given a few more safety pointers before heading out again. And this, to be honest, is the more spectacular part of the trip, as the road, sometimes easily two lanes wide, sometimes scarcely one, always rough gravel, and at times with 400-500m vertical drops off to the side, snakes and twists down the side of the mountain. It is generally acknowledged that there are only two ways to go down: pretty slow, or pretty fast. The former has the obvious advantage of more reaction time, the latter means that you are close behind the guide and hence can see which line he is taking, and also catch any of the hand-signals he gives out for information and warning. I went firmly for the latter approach and loved every minute of it, despite one or two moments when I hit loose rocks with my rear wheel or slid slightly on the gravel - the sensation of speed was amazing, and it also meant that I got a chance to admire the scenery somewhat whenever we occasionally stopped to allow the group to bunch back together after getting strung out. We had snacks at one point, and sandwiches for a kind of light brunch just across from some of the waterfalls that fall across the road, one of the more interesting hazards to navigate! I also had one of my periodic nosebleeds then, which slightly alarmed the guides, but I explained somehow in broken Spanish that I get them a lot and they clear up quickly, and when it did, that was all alright.
After that break, we had a few sections on the flat, where I discovered that downhill bikes aren't really that well set up for such exertions, being designed principally to cushion the bumps as you let gravity do its work. Still, we made it through those, and the sun, which had been teasing us for much of the morning, had now finally broken through properly, so I was glad to have divested myself of most of the less-necessary outer layers of clothing that had served their purpose of stopping me freezing on the upper road. The dust was also picking up as we got to drier parts of the road, and we had the added joy of crossing a couple of streams. I was slightly put out when, on the last one of these and only five minutes from the end, my chain broke but they popped me onto Marcelo's bike (it wasn't really worth bringing the spare down off the roof at this point) so I could finish the ride, down at the depths of 1,100m. At the end, we handed back our bikes and all of our kit, and then took advantage of the little local stand selling cold beer, a most welcome offering. Once all the kit was stowed, we were driven to a little local hotel where we could have showers and make use of the (slightly green-looking) pool to refresh ourselves, and also take advantage of the late buffet lunch on offer. Unfortunately, I found out later that I had also served as lunch, for the local sandfly population, but such is life. Somewhat bushed after a long day, I actually managed to doze for some of the trip back up to La Paz (taking the new, paved road, not the one we had come down), before waking and catching some of Cello's tales of events and accidents on the road over the years (he's been guiding there for 7 years now, working for 3 of the companies). I continued my over-consumption of food for the day by having the barbecue back at the Rover, and then ended up discussing the Troubles in Northern Ireland with an American lass from Boston called Hayley, which was interesting, but reinforced my policy from back at Uni that one should never discuss politics, religion, football or Northern Ireland with strangers....