La Paz, Bolivia & the Amazon!

6 Oct

The bus ride from Cusco, Peru to La Paz, Bolivia went a lot smoother than I thought it would be. We left Cusco at 10:00pm and were surprised to learn that there were actually two different buses going to La Paz. The bus we booked would cross into Bolivia through Puno, while the 10:30pm bus would go through a sketchier crossing, but is much faster. I decided to just stick with our original, safer route.

I arrived in Puno, Peru around 4:00am and had to wait in a freezing cold station for one hour until our next bus. Not so fun. It only took 2 hours to arrive at the hectic Peru/Bolivia border crossing. The bus driver told everyone to get off the bus and receive our exit stamps from Peru and then we had to walk across a congested bridge to Bolivia, packed with locals and tuk tuks. Everybody was scurrying across, trucking loads of goods across the border. It was an interesting sight. Once across, we walked into the Bolivian immigration building and received our entry and visa stamps. Lucky for us Canadians, we didn’t have to pay the $130USD dollars like our American counterparts.

Once I had my stamps, it was back on the bus for another 3 hour ride into La Paz, the largest city in Bolivia. La Paz is very scenic. Tall buildings, adobe houses, and winding roads set within a deep valley and sprawling up the sides of mountains. It’s so different from any other city/village in South America. I took a taxi to the hostel and it wasn’t until I was cruising the streets that I realized how big and bustling the city was! Business people, traditional folk, apartment and office buildings, small shops — it was a mix of old and new. I really enjoyed it.

l settled into the hostel and then went out for Mexican food and sangria with a couple we met in our room. When we got back to the hostel we had more drinks with our some American friends we met in Lima, Meghan and Bianca. The four of us have been traveling together for over a week now.

The next day, we all wanted to visit the infamous Witch’s Market. You can buy potions, good luck charms and even llama fetuses! Many Bolivians buy a llama fetus to bury under their new homes for good luck. Hmm, all I know is that they smelled so awful! You could smell the fetuses before you even turned the corner.

Shallow boats in the Beni River, Bolivia

did buy some really great stuff at the market, including an alpaca sweater that FINALLY fit me! After some serious shopping, we all went out for Indian food. It’s funny that in any big city, you can find almost every type of cuisine! And for a foodie like me, it’s pure bliss!

The next day, I wandered to the Mercado Negro (Black Market) for some last minute essentials. I bought a really nice watch for myself and a sun hat. In Bolivia, shopping is too easy. Sometimes it’s hard to resist! On the way to the market, we discovered an amazing fruit market. We paid 2 bolivianos for fresh squeezed orange and pineapple juice. Splurge! Not really… it cost 30 cents.

The next day, I was booked to leave for the Amazon Pampas tour. The first leg of travel is a 45 minute plane ride up into Rurrenabaque. Well, the flight was scheduled to leave at 6:15am and when we arrived at the airport, they had cancelled it and put us on the 6:45am flight. Not so bad….. BUT THEN our 6:45 flight was delayed until 9:30am due to smoke. Apparently, farmers burn crops this time of year and flood the sky with smoke, making it very difficult for the pilot to navigate.

The plane was the size of a sardine tin. Only 20 people could be seated. It was a little scary. Once we were close to landing, the pilot said we would have to bypass the airstrip and fly another 15 minutes to a military base because it was too smokey to land. WELL THEN WHY WOULD YOU PUT US ON THE  FLIGHT TO BEGIN WITH? I was frustrated. Little did I know it would get worse. Once we landed in the middle of nowhere, we had to wait 2 hours for a barely functioning bus to pick us up. Once boarded, we drove on a bumpy dirt road for another 45 minutes back to Rurrenabaque. Oh, fun.

We ended up missing our scheduled tour, but thankfully they booked us for the next morning without any extra cost. We did, however, have to pay for an extra night in a hostel and 30 bolivianos to change our return flight PLUS extra meals. lame. Nevertheless, I was eager to start the tour. At 8:45am, we met at the tour office and climbed into an ancient Range Rover jeep with sideways seats. For the next four hours, we barreled down a crazy dirt road with no seatbelts. And then the unthinkable happened, it started to downpour. Did I mention there were no windshield wipers?

Capybaras in the Amazon Pampas

This was the bumpiest ride of my life. You also couldn’t see anything out of the front window. Terrifying! There were 8 of us squeezed in the back with zero leg room. I couldn’t wait for the ride to end.

Finally, we reached the Beni River in the pouring rain. I took one look at the uncovered shallow boats and thought there was no way I wanted to get in them. Cold, wet and muddy for 3 hours…. I think not! But there was no choice. We bought extra ponchos, took off our shoes and climbed in for one wet ride. The worst part was that because the water level was fairly low, we had to get out and push the boat in the murky Amazonian river. A river which is infested with  alligators, piranhas and other creepy critters. The water was warmer than the air, so that was a bonus, right?

Finally, we reached our Eco-lodge in the Amazonian pampas. The pampas are the wetlands. I was told you can see more wildlife here than in the jungle. Everybody hightailed it to our mosquito netted beds and changed into warm, dry clothes. The funny part is that everyone told us it would be 30-40 degrees C in the pampas, so I didn’t bring any sweaters or long underwear for sleeping. I had two pairs of zip off hiking pants, one I slept in and one I wore during the day because it was too cold. The ones I slept in were from the Inca Trail and I hadn’t even washed them yet! Yuck, but what can you do?

The next morning we woke up early and the rain had subsided somewhat, so our group went anaconda searching. We wore ponchos and rain boots and set off. We walked for 3 hours through the pampas. I saw a lot of crispy, dead anacondas that had been burned in fires. Gross. I also saw a dead tortoise… well, just the shell. I was getting a little depressed from seeing all the corpses until FINALLY Jaime (our guide) found a live anaconda curled up in a patch of grass! Excellent! It was huge! I touched it, which probably is not the best idea in theory. The anaconda was so calm.

After a successful morning, we headed back to the lodge for lunch and then a siesta. The rain had stopped and it was warming up, so we went piranha fishing! Our group caught 4 piranhas. Unfortunately, I only caught a catfish…. but I was fairly satisfied. I fished with a stick of wood, line and hook and used small bits of beef as bait. It was very rustic.

We  then set sail back for dinner. Stefanie ate her piranha catch, while I happily declined. Once it was dark, we piled back into the shallow boat and went on a  night cruise. I could see the glowing eyes of all the alligators and caymans. It was terrifying! During the day, they seem so calm, but at night they look vicious. One had a large bird in its mouth. I also got dangerously close to one alligator and freaked out. Of course.

Along the river, I saw many other pampas animals. There were tons of birds, spider & howler monkeys and even capybaras! Capybaras are the world’s largest rodents. They look like giant hamsters. Very cute!! Back at the lodge, I saw more monkeys and even a few toucans 🙂

On the last morning, we went to an area where you could swim with fresh water dolphins. There were two gators in the same area, who are apparently friendly. I didn’t jump in because the dolphins were a little apprehensive and I didn’t see the point if I couldn’t get close to them. Oh and the alligators scouring the area were also fairly discouraging. Long story short….Stefanie touched an alligator right between the eyes. I refused. Instead, I just took a picture close enough for the effect, but far enough for him not to bite my face off.

Stefanie touching a wild alligator

Then it was two hours back on the boat and 4 agonizing hours on the jeep. Thankfully, the sun came out and the ride was much smoother than coming in. Our flight to La Paz was scheduled to leave at 9:20am. Once we arrived at the airport, a woman told us the flight was cancelled and we were put on the 2:45pm flight… so predictable! So, we walked to a hostel and asked if we could lay in their hammocks for a few hours. I was able to finish my book, so that is some good news. We were back in La Paz by 3:30pm. Despite the weather and the horrible transportation, the Pampas tour was awesome. I still can’t believe I went to the Amazon 🙂

I have one last day in La Paz before leaving for Sucre, the capital of Bolivia. I love new destinations. La Paz is too congested for me, so I’m looking forward to a smaller, more quaint town.

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