Isla del sol – Copacabana

I hesitated a long ime whether or not to go to Lake Titicaca simply because I didn’t think a lake could be that special. In the end, I had a few days to kill in La Paz and curiosity overcame me. A guide book promised me a smooth ride on a perfectly tarred road with amazing views. Little did I know that the road is currently under construction to become a 4-lane road and basically completely closed.I booked a 2-day trip which included a visit to the Isla del Sol and Copacabana.


I had known for a while already that the north part is not accessible to tourists at the moment. The most interesting thing about this is that everybody is incredibly vague as to why. The closest thing to an explanation I got from my guide was “It’s a dispute between two indigenous groups. The government wouldn’t touch that with a pole. This means however, that the island is easily visitable in half a day at the moment.

Our guide was from the Isla del sol itself. He was born there and must’ve been somewhat of a local celebrity, at least everyone we crossed wanted to shake his hand. We did a small walk from the Inca palace on the south of the island, over the the actual village of Yumani. From there it’s a short thirty minute walk to a view point from which one can see the entire island, including the North and, if you’re as late as I was, the sunset.


The next morning, after a nice little breakfast we descended to the Inca fountain and gardens. Our guide told us about the ghosts he’d heard while growing up on the island and that they only got electricity in 1994. Running water is even newer, the waterpump lifting the water to the village on top of the island has only been operating for a few years. Accordingly you still posters everywhere asking you to use water sparsely as it’s carried up by hand.

Once he reached the Inca fountain he told us that this fountain rejuvenates you. It is now also known as the fountain of youth. He encouraged us to drink from it, but when I filled up my two liter bottle, he got a bit uneasy and reminded us to not drink too much at once, as we’re “not used to the high amount of minerals in the water”. I don’t think minerals is what is gonna make someone sick. In any case, I didn’t get sick, but I also didn’t feel a whole lot younger after those two liters either.

From the Inca fountain we took the boat back to Copacabana and there, a whole lot of celebrating was going on. I’ve finally come to the realization that I’m not “incredibly lucky” to visit villages whenever they have their big annual celebration.. It’s more that Bolivians seem to have big weekly celebrations or maybe even daily. There’s hardly a day where there’s no Fiesta going on. In any case this was the day of the indigenous people and many people spent it worshiping Pachamama and getting themselves and their priced positions blessed. Interestingly enough a lot of the people were actually coming down from Peru as the Inca’s (and also their descendants today) believe that the god of the sun was born in the lake Titicaca.

The most common ceremony was the blessing of the car, which I found particularly interesting because it started out with decorating the car with flowers, to please Pachamama. Then you pop the hood of your car and put all the other little gifts for Pachamama on top of the motor. Mother Earth particularly likes sweets and alcohol. I can totally relate. In addition you can add symbols of your wishes for the next year: Cash, houses, cars but also diplomas and certificates are very popular. Then comes the most surprising part. You park in front of the Catholic cathedral and have your car and yourself blessed with Holy Water by a Franciscan priest. I really wanted to ask how they felt about these blessings, but they were very busy. The line of cars was over a kilometer long.

The final part of the tour was the viewpoint from which one can have a look over Copacabana. This would have been particularly unspectacular if it hadn’t been for the festivities going on. The view over Copacabana… is ok. It’s a city, it’s not particularly pretty. But the viewpoint contains a statue of the Virgin Mary and everybody and their dog made their way up there to burn their offers to Pachamama next to the Virgin Mary and get her blessing too. On the way up we saw truth teller, fortune tellers using molten lead, stands selling all the possible sacrifices for Pachamama, including the lama fetuses we’d already seen in the witchers market and more. The houses that could be bought as the “wanted” or “desired” accomplishment were up to 10 stories tall. At the top, I saw many people sitting in front of a little square delimited by stones, containing flowers, coca leaves and whatever else they could afford. I’d later learn that these are people that are hoping to acquire some land for themselves in the coming year.

 

All in all it was a great experience, also because our guide was so immersed in it. He told us about the year he became a guide, he’d been up at the statue of the Virgin Mary to burn a mock certificate and ask for her blessing. He had us blessed by the Catholic priest. He also made it quite clear that he did not think “lead-pourer” are truly fortune tellers, as opposed to the inca priests who clearly know what they are talking about!

La Paz 2.0

After hopping through Bolivia’s central national parks I returned to La Paz to plan my next moves. It felt a bit like home.. The moment I got there all my plans to leave again kinda failed because they included an early rise. However, I did enjoy La Paz, as usual. Out of the four days I stayed there, four where national holidays and I recently learned that basically all of August will be holidays as well as it’s the month of Pachamama. The first two days I stayed in la Paz were the “Fiestas universitarias”, lot’s of party, lot’s of noise an fireworks everywhere in the evening. The next day was el dia del municipio, where the local employees don’t work. Instead they (or at least some) dress up in traditional dresses and have a procession through the street. Complete with music and honking cars at the back that don’t enjoy the road being blocked. Today is the day of the Pachamama, Mother Earth. This also showed me that the traditional gifts to Pachamama are still practiced by many. The stores in the witchers markets were full and people were queuing out the door and around the next corner to buy gift baskets to offer to Pachamama today.
La Paz, as usual was also full of chance encounters. An old lady telling me that the now bus station used to be a border control office and before that a train station (for a train that no longer exists) and has been originally designed by Mr Eiffel from the Eiffel tower. A street vendor, telling me about his twelve years on the road, collecting stones from all over South America. (Yes, I ended up buying things from him. ;)). A taxi driver debating Christianity, love and philosophy. Everyone has a story to share and the time to do so.
I also finally cracked and bought some much needed essentials before leaving Bolivia, for example lama earrings. Unfortunately I proceeded to forget them in my hostel the next morning.. I guess I’m not used to wearing jewelery anymore.. But for the ten hours they belonged to me, I really loved them! (And I did go and bought a new pair the next day)

Amboro national park

The Amboro national park is right around the corner from Samaipata and there is a bunch of agencies offering tours. Not necessarily the one I wanted though. I had been looking around and the Amboro national park consists of three separate zones, a high arrid area, an intermediate cloud forest and a very low rain forest like I had seen in the Madidi national park in Rurre. So my goal was to go to cloud forest. Unfortunately the much more popular (and therefore cheaper) route is to go to the jungle. I spent a day visiting all the tour agencies, asking if they had a group leaving to said park. They didn’t. But I kept hearing about that other girl, that was also interested and maybe if I could find her we could go together and get a better price. I did end up meeting her, but unfortunately it was only on our way out of town in the bus from Samaipata to Santa Cruz.


But, as always, there’s a way to make things work. While I wasn’t prepared to pay the official list price, one of the companies offered me a discount since they had no outing the next day. So I did some mental gymnastics to justify paying double of what I initially planned (but if you take into account that I saved money on food that day, and didn’t need to pay another night of hostels in Samaipata it was only a 100 bolivianos more) and off I went with my private tour guide the next morning.
The tour itself was absolutely amazing. We started out in a rather unspectacular patch of “standard” forest. But my guide stopped every few minutes to show me an edible plant or a medicinal plant or an herb. I’m not sure how many different plants I tried that day, but there were many. I also finally learned what “Boldo”, a lemony tea I’ve been drinking for a couple of months now, is: A green bush growing wild in the Yunga. He also explained to me that this part of the woods were quite arid since the mountain stopped the clouds and kept all the humidity on the other side, where we were headed.

Once we crossed over the ridge and started descending into the valley the forest changed dramatically. Ferns were everywhere, lichen too. I was enthralled. But when I started taking pictures my guide told me to wait, this wasn’t the good part. Granted, the leaves of the ferns were a bit brown, but I knew this might be the case since I was traveling in the dry season. My guide assured me we’d get to ‘the better’ ferns a bit further down, which were still green.


He was right, we did climb down into the valley and there the ferns were still green. Mostly because they were standing close to some small streamlet and because the trees were hiding the leaves from the sun. There I learned that Amboro means “where the water is born” because it has plenty of small water sources. He also showed me the two types of giant ferns that exist in this area. They are quite easy to distinguish, one has some serious thorns the other one doesn’t. They also grow at different speeds, the former at about 3-5cm the other at less than 1cm per year. So when you look at a 20m high fern you know it’s been around for quite a while.

Samaipata – El Fuerte

The cross from Cochabamba to Samaipata is a bit adventurous. I didn’t know about the 7am direct bus and I managed to miss the bus at 11am to Mairana, some 15km from Samaipata.I couldn’t find any trufi going that far, so I ended up taking the 5pm bus. Now the bus ride from Cochabamba to Mairana takes about nine hours, meaning we arrived at 2am in Mairana. I did not believe I would be able to find a hotel open at that time of the night especialy since I didn’t know if Mairana had any hotels at all.

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After communicating with the bus company they had a simple solution: Just sleep in our bus, the first taxis going from Mairana to Samaipata start leaving around 4am. Since I did not want to arrive in Samaipata at 4:30am, we agreed that I’d stay in the bus until dawn. Something that was, luckily also communicated to the bus driver. I kind of expected to be kicked out in Mairana, but he was in the loop and perfectly fine with me squatting his bus. At roughly 5am, long before dawn, the temperature just dropped too low and I decided screw it, I’m going to Samaipata now. Unfortunately, that’s when I realised I had been locked in. There was no way out and certainly no way to get my luggage from the storage compartment. That’s when you start wondering how and when you’ll get out. Assuming the bus had to be back in Cochabamba by five and it needing nine hours to get there, I should be liberated around 10am at the latest. But I needn’t have worried. At 6:30am, shortly after the sky started turning blue, the bus driver showed up with his wife to let me out. One could clearly tell he thought I was a bit crazy for staying in the bus, but he was very nice, considering that I probably made him get up early.
By 7:30am I was in Samaipata drinking a nice, strong coffee.. Just what the doctor ordered.

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Shortly after I set out to visit the ruins of El fuerte, the fortress. Well, it’s not really a fortress, but highly intriguing. It’s a huge barren rock on top of a hill, which held a cultural significance for almost all native tribes that lived in the area. Therefore one can find carvings up to 1200 years old. The animal carvings were initially done by the rather peaceful Chané who lived there for 500 years before the warrior tribes of the guarani moved up from the Amazonas and conquered them around 1350AD. They then built the tribe Chiriguani meaning “those with Chané women” as I would learn the next day. Alternative sources they that the Chané were enslaved and forced to marry the Guarani and that the word Chiriguani comes from the Quechua words for “meaningless dirt”. But that doesn’t sound all that nice, does it? The Chiriguani didn’t last long, as they were conquered by the Inkas coming from the Andes only 150 years later. They used it as a ceremonial site and as a rest point for their runners. This is also what gave Samaipata its name, as it means “Place of rest at high altitude”. Ultimately the Spanish arrived, conquered the Inkas and built a fortress here which gave the site the name of El Fuerte.


El Fuerte is such a unique location because of its mix of different cultures, you can see the animal drawings of the Chané, right next to Inca walls and the niches on the ground which contained statues of their gods and ancestors. Around the rock itself there are many remains of different type of Inca buildings: private housing, administrative buildings and more. Those, to me, were very interesting because it showed a very different, less elegant building style than the one you see in Cuzco.. I guess this is due a lot to the distance and the lesser importance of this site (compared to Cuzco). At least I know now, that the Incas built houses just like we did with clay as mortar.

The one thing that is a bit unfortunate (but necessary to preserve the site), is that you can’t get close or walk on the rock itself. That means that a lot of the carvings and symbols on the rock are quite hard to make out. I could not get my eyes to understand which way round the Puma lies in this picture, for example.

Torotoro – El Vergel

The next day we arrived early at the guide office as we had been warned the previous evening that while the office would definitely be open, they couldn’t guarantee that enough or even any of the guides would show up. The advantage of being self employed is deciding when you work, I guess. Luckily for us, there were enough guides and we set out to discover the dinosaur prints, the canyon and the local waterfall.

We had an absolutely amazing guide called Diego, who freely admitted that he was still in training. However, since he was still in training he was very motivated and wanted to show us every detail about the country side. We learned about many medicinal plants (including one that should be able to cure my luckily already healing carpal tunnel issues), the stone compositions and the different places locals seek out. He also told us much about the Bolivian history and the bloody battles going on in the surrounding mountains. This has been by far the most engaged and informative guide I’ve had so far.

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He also, of course, showed us the dinosaur tracks. They are fascinating in the sense that the stone looks just like wet mud someone walked through.. Only that it’s now rock solid and has been for about a 100 million years. This being said, if you’d told me that someone dropped a stone there, I would’ve believed it as well.


From the dinosaur tracks we went on to the canyon. The canyon was absolutely spectacular and we enjoyed learning that it’s over 300m deep until we figured out that the waterfalls were at the bottom of said canyon. For a very short second we considered skipping the waterfalls to not have to walk back up. But, of course, we didn’t.

We bravely ventured into the canyon, quietly counting the number of stairs we’d need to take back up at the end of the trip. As we reached the bottom the vegetation suddenly grew green and we got some shade from actual trees which was highly enjoyable. The hike was totally worth it, The waterfall was absolutely not what I expected, but the small falls feeding the green moss and the water dripping down the roots, made for a very pretty scene. There is even a small pond in front of the waterfall, where the bravest one go to swim. The water, however, is absolutely freezing.

If I could change anything, I would probably have started a little later as the sun only seems to reach the water pools around 1pm, at which point my sunburn and our lack of lunch really made us want to return back into town. The hike back up wasn’t half as bad as we feared and within half an hour we were back on the almost flat trail into town, where we said good bye to Diego and set out to score some lunch at the unreasonably late hour of half past one which was much harder than expected. In the end we found one place which still had some rice and sauce left to feed us before we set out on the four hour drive back into Cochabamba.

Torotoro – Ciudad de Itas and Umajalanta

From Rurre I flew (almost) straight to Cochabamba to go to the Torotoro national park. A short two hour stop in La Paz told me that I’d already lost all acclimatizing that I may have built up during the weeks I spent there prior. A pity, as I was left constantly grasping for more air. Luckily the village of Torotoro is quite low, at only 2700m of elevation.
Our first outing was to the town of Ita, a serious of tunnels and rock formations some twenty kilometers outside of town. Once I got out of the car, a familiar feeling overcame me and I asked at what altitude we were.. We had climbed to 3700m again, which rendered the walking a bit more challenging and a little lass walk in the park than expected. The tunnels were very pretty though and the few absolutely stunning. After cruising through the rocks a while, we started to be tested by squeezing through some tight little openings and climbing up some steep ladders which ended in the middle of more rocks that needed climbing. Since we had also booked the spelunking for the afternoon we just considered this the warm up for our afternoon activity.

If you like climbing into caves the Umajalanta cave is for you. It is a rough and fun exploration to do. Only about 350 meters of the in total 7km deep cave are accessible to tourist, mostly because you need to walk through some hip-deep water if you want to continue deeper into the cave. Those 350m however are already great fun, sometimes very tight and sometimes quite exposed.


Unfortunately this cave has been left untended until recently, so that many of the previous tourists collected a stalagmite or four to take back home. In consequence many of them are broken and one can only imagine how pretty it must’ve been for the first visitors exploring this cave. You do get to see what our guide told us was “broccoli stalagmite”, which are stalagmites forming due to the humidity in the air resembling vaguely a cauliflower.. Why they picked broccoli rather than cauliflower as a name, we’ll never know.


A tiny highlight at the end of the exploration is the water pond, which contains some blind cave fish that can actually be seen, and much to my surprise water striders. Actually there’s a lot in that cave that shouldn’t by default be in a cave: mosquitoes, branches, fish.. It becomes clear why, once you start your way back.. During the rainy season a giant river must be flowing into the cave, shaping the stones and dragging in drift wood. After about two hours the fun is over and you make it safely back out into the sunlight.. slightly more dirty than when you came in. There’s no avoiding it as there are passages that you do need to cross on your stomach.

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When we got back home, a party was going on. Once again I’ve stumbled into town just at the right moment to experience their annual celebration. This time was special though as we’d met a semi-local (a foreigner living there for a couple of years) who took us to a chicheria to see how the Bolivians really party. A part from the fact that we had to drink their fermented corn drink, chicha, it was absolutely amazing. Small groups kept stopping by to play the charango and one of the guests would usually join in to sing. We dance, we laughed and we offered a lot of the chicha to Pachamama so we wouldn’t have to drink it.

Rurre – jungle tour

 

After having enjoyed the pampas so much, we decided to add a two day jungle trip on. The delicious food we’d been served at the lodge totally did not influence our decision, but we wanted more of it. The itinerary was quite packed, after setting off at 8:30 in the morning, we first visited a small village to see how cane juice is made and drink it. Obviously. We spiked it with some lime juice, it was very delicious.

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Then we’d hike up to a remote camp with a higher chance of actually seeing animals. From there we’d do a night walk to try and see some of the nocturnal animals before continuing onwards the next morning to take a close look at the macau and rafting back into the lodge in the afternoon.


The walk, while very interesting did not show us many animals. We saw a pair, of what I swear where cappuccino monkeys. But I later found out they’re actually called capucin monkeys. We did however see a lot of different plants and quite a few interestingly shaped mushrooms.

On a related note, it is a good idea to be very careful what you touch in the djungle. Just about everything seems to have spines!

We also saw a lot of plant cutter ants which I found highly entertaining. They cary tons of leaves into their nest to grow mushrooms on them. Then eat said mushrooms.

 

We also chased a couple of spider monkeys. While we didn’t see them, I did learn that monkeys are anything but elegant or quite.. You can hear them break through the forest at quite a distance. The lack of animals was made up for by the plants though. We learned about a plant which works as insect repellent, the jungle apple whose juice can be used for temporary tattoos (of course we all had to try. First we weren’t sure if it had worked as nothing appeared on our skins.. By the next morning all of us had dark blue marks on their arms though.. which couldn’t be washed off). We gladly declined when our guide wanted to show us how they make their traditional red paint… Blue stains are quite enough.

The night hike ended up being as successful as the day one, we didn’t even hear any animals although they must’ve perused our camp later night, as we saw marks in the morning.

The macaus were a big success however, not only did we see many of them flying from their cliff, we also got lucky enough to see them up close on some of the trees surrounding us. We spent a good hour watching them until they’d all left to get food. So we did the same. That afternoon we built a ‘traditional boat’, which ended up being a float made of six logs and drifted back down the river to our lodge.

Needless to say, that we all got very wet and we all were very happy that our backpacks were in the real boat and not completely immersed in water. Luckily the weather had recovered enough to reach almost 30 degrees so it was an absolutely hilarious experience.

After a good nights sleep and a rather scary demonstration of exactly how close the tarantula lived to our room, we set off at 8am because my friend had a flight at noon. She ended up leaving at 11:15, which was probably still more than enough time in advance since this is probably the world’s smallest airport and the world’s smallest airplane leaving from it. It did have one very interesting feature and that was the lack of a door between cockpit and passengers, so we could see the pilots fly our plane. I’m not sure if the amount of alarms sounding during that flight were normal, but the pilots seemed to be very unimpressed by them, so I guess they weren’t serious?

Rurre – Pampas tour

Many people had told me that going to the Pampas actually provided a much higher chance to see wildlife and after having done the previous walk, I could easily see why. Even though we did get within ten meters of the boars, we never actually really saw them. The jungle hid them very well.


So I decided quite quickly on doing a three day pampa tour. It was a good thing that I went out directly the next day, as we had the most amazing day. Already on the road we saw a sloth up in the trees and a bunch of different birds. Once we actually were in the pampas, we saw the pink river dolphins, big kaimans, baby kaimans, monkeys and a bunch of different birds.

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Including one ridiculously looking fellow who we were told has survived since the dinosaurs.. It certainly does look like creatic. This bird eats only leaves and has a cow-like digestion system, which apparently leads to a lot of gas as they spend most of their day burping in the trees. As it is they make a lot of noise and are quite common, which had them quickly turn from highly fascinating into highly annoying specimen.

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We also swam with the dolphins, although I would probably rather call it “swam next to the dolphins”, as they didn’t seem particularly inclined to actually come close to us.
To make that day perfect we had a beautiful sunset out in the pampas and still managed to be home inside the moskito net before they really started attacking.

That night, however, things changed.. Our guide had already told us the weather would change.. However we did not expect it to drop down to five degrees. This is the Amazonas bassin after all, it’s rain forest, it’s meant to be hot. On the plus side, apparently it is these type of radical weather changes (which happen every year, but not always so extreme) that makes the region mostly malaria free.. The mosquito in question just doesn’t like the cold.

The next day the pampas were completely changed. No animal was seen, we found a few birds that looked like they wished they were somewhere else and then the highlight the capibara, the biggest rodent in the world. It has an absolutely charming way of looking past you and making you believe you can’t possibly have spotted it.

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They are definitely very laid back.. The other thing we saw, which was highly fascinating and also quite sad, was a pair of eagles that had found and dug up a nest of turtle eggs. They seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, while we weren’t sure whether we should let nature take it’s course or intervene. In the end, it appeared they’d already broken open the eggs, so there was no point in intervening.

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On our final day we went anaconda hunting, although we were quite split on whether we actually wanted to find one or not. We had seen a dead baby anaconda the previous day of only three meters length. This had us slightly worried of what might happen when we find an actual grown one. In the end we needn’t have worried, with the cold weather, the anacondas were all hidden away and we didn’t see them… which is nature too, not all animals will happily parade themselves for you when you feel like it.

The way back had a bit of a Mad Max feeling, whenever we crossed a truck:

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Ride and river – boat

From Mapiri on we took the boat downwards towards Rurrenabaque (it only took me a couple of weeks to learn how to pronounce and spell that name correctly. Only to find out in Rurre, that noone bothers with the full name and everyone just calls it Rurre.) This is easier said than done. The river  is very shallow around Mapiri and there’s apparently little to no traffic on that leg.

However, we had a great guide at the front of the boat, who often looked like he was directing an opera, but was really indicating the machinist at the back where to go. This way we only got stuck once on a sandbank after some miscommunication between the two. It did, however, take six people to unlodge that boat from said bank. The next time the river got shallow we all got out and just walked the couple of meters down to where the river ran deeper again.
After collecting our cook in Guanay, we set off for another ride down the river (now funnily named Kaka). In a single day we covered almost 70km, thanks to a fast running river and a quite powerful motor. We stopped for the night in the garden of a local rubber-producer. The camping ground was absolutely idyllic, a little field of green next to a clear stream with enough space for a large fire and our tents. The next day we hiked up the stream until we reached a small waterfall and a large pool where we ended up spending a good hour swimming and frolicking.


From there we went downriver for a couple of hours, having lunch on the boat. In the afternoon we stopped to do a jungle hike. It was already very hot and humid and leaving the river made it even worse. But we got lucky in the sense that we ran into some actual wildlife almost instantly. Now I do believe I did see a back of wild boar. But we most definitely heard and smelled them. There was no mistaking that smell. We did see one boar, but it was already very dead as can be seen in the picture.

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We also, apparently, saw some tapirs, but in that case I didn’t even see a shadow.. Our guide, however, did have a very happy grin on his face, so I fully believe that he saw them.


The last night we spent on the beach, with a big fire and while it was great fun, it was also a little sad as it was our last night together. It’s amazing how quickly those days passed by. The next day we had one last lunch on the boat before reaching the river Beni then the Madidi national park and finally Rurre.