March 19, 2013 by southerninversion
The buckle ‘clicked’ into place, and the guide synched the loose chin straps on my oversized helmet down just a bit tighter, for a closer fit. The rubbery textured gardening gloves slid noisily over both hands, with the elastic cuffs ‘snapping’ into place on my wrists. I layered the paper thin, synthetic nylon coveralls, (a pullover and pants combination), overtop the jeans and windbreaker I was already wearing. There was a chill in the air and the sun had yet to crest over the ridge. I was already cold, and it was about to get a hell of a lot colder on the descent. This gear wasn’t ideal, but would serve its purpose, and moreover it was all that was offered. My outfit looked ridiculous, about 4 sizes too big, and could’ve easily doubled as an adult ‘onesie’. However, now came the most important selection, the bicycle. I got the luck of the draw and ended up with a decent full suspension frame, that was a few rides shy of a fine tuning. I waited. Everyone got ready. I walked over to the cliff edge and peered over the escarpment. I asked the French guy beside me to take a quick snapshot. Then, after a brief instructional type tutorial, en Español, about what not to do, we took off. The descent: ‘El Camino de la Muerte’ or the ‘Death Road’!
The spiraling mist and plumes of fog rose up the embankment, creating an almost mystical halo over the valley, as it interacted with the soft clouded sunlight shining down. The first 45 kilometers of the 80 km trek were super fast, most of us only gently squeezing the brakes during the sharpest turns. We enjoyed the swift cruise down the smoothly paved, relatively newly constructed high mountain pass, which connects La Paz with the more remote villages and towns immediately to the north. This road effectively replaced the ‘death road’, which took its name from the tragic crashes and numerous fatalities that occurred there each year. Many vehicles, including buses, accidentally careened off the sheer cliffs to their destruction and the death of all those on board. The new road however, is vastly improved, technologically reinforced and modern in comparison, complete with guardrails, pavement, and shoulders for safety.
All this allowed for us to go even faster. Thankfully, there were virtually no cars that morning, as it was so early, and those that passed by were simply coming up the pass. All the novice bikers slowly cruised towards the back of the pack, allowing the thrill seekers to aim for top speed, using no brakes. The bikes themselves were not oriented with a fixed gear, but they might as well have been, because they were all set in the lowest gear, and the need to peddle was obsolete due to the steep grade of the decline. After an hour or so on pavement, we all loaded back into our respective vans for the corresponding transport to the original, ‘El Camino de la Muerte’. After a quick 20 minute transfer, we ended up at the start of the next downhill segment, the final 35 km, toward the outskirts of the remote, mountainous jungle town of Coroico.
The actual ‘Camino’ was a gravel road, that was in fairly great shape, with a few scattered bumps, ridges, and potholes. However, the impending escarpments and foggy abyss at every turn could send a nervous chill right down your spine. Just the thought of losing control and falling to your demise was enough to give me a brief repose. However, it didn’t stop me from going as fast as I possibly could and enjoying every minute of it. I felt like I had done way more dangerous activities in my life, including much more intensive, technical downhill mountain biking included in that list. This was solely a gravel road, steep yes, and with a hell of a view, but a road nonetheless. That said, I still had to pay attention to some of the novice riders, who at various points along the way, crashed all around me. Most of them either out of control, or beyond their ability.
At the end of the ride we had the option to return to La Paz or to be dropped off in Corioco, of which I opted for the latter. I had booked the biking tour with the group of Chileans a few days before in La Paz. All 8 of us safely made it down the descent in one piece. From there, we all stayed in Coroico that night and split up into two groups of four, each staying at different hostels of varying quality comfort, and price. I desperately needed to wash my clothes which smelled horribly from the past week’s travel and excursions, stained with dirt, sweat, and whatever miscellaneous food I had managed to spill on myself. Yet this town was completely deficient with a lavandería, (laundry service), forcing me to hand-wash it all, oldschool style, then hang it out to dry on the clotheslines provided. Laundry, in itself, has been a critical part of my trip, and one aspect that often gets overlooked at times. However, the simple luxury to have clean clothes is well appreciated. The elated feeling of opening up that freshly clean bundle, tightly encased in a thick plastic bag, all neatly folded, and smelling of detergent, is extra special, if only to a weary traveler.
While my clothes hung out to dry, I went to explore Coroico, a simple mountain town, located in a remote expanse of subtropical jungle terrain. There is a surprising amount of amenities, hotels, restaurants, etc. here, which seems all the more impressive taking into account the relative geographical isolation, the treacherous roads it takes to get here, and the fact that it sits on the crown of a humongous hill. The town has grown in recent years due to the influx of tourists, like me, coming from the ‘death road tour’ or others headed to Rurrenabaque, a national park further north set amid Amazonian headwaters and a dense jungle canopy. I opted not to go there due to the grueling 16 hour bus ride, despite hearing multiple times, from other travelers, about the amazing ‘pink dolphins’, that I missed out on seeing and swimming with. Instead of opting for this jungle tour, I walked down to the bus terminal to see if there was a transport to Tocaña, a locally renowned Afro-Boliviano village on an adjacent mountaintop. On the way, I couldn’t avoid the alure and inviting smell of roasting coffee emanating from the local market. I purchased a bag of dark roasted beans, grown in the region nearby.
I got separated somehow from Ángeles, Vale, and Esteban, my main travel partners during the last week, when they went searching for another hostel. I found myself instead venturing with the four young Chilean cousins in a station wagon taxi toward Tocaña. We arrived an hour later after a series of delicate switchback curves down the steep gravel road, descending one mountainside, then ascending halfway up another, before being dropped off. We walked the rest of the way up the hill, towards the town, passing by numerous rampart walls, lean-to shacks, and other decrepit dwellings before climbing to the abandoned school and adjoining hospital, which was supposed to be the center of the town. Tocaña as a formal village didn’t really exist, instead it was more similar to the string of makeshift houses we had passed walking up the hill. In the school there was a defunct lookout tower. We climbed up the stairs to see magnificent vistas through open air windows devoid of glass, which overlooked the corresponding ‘Yungas’ jungle valley.
The people of Tocaña, are descendants of former African slaves, brought to Bolivia by the Spanish conquistadors hundreds of years earlier, to extract silver and other precious metals by hand, from the legendary mines of Potosi. After years of trial, tribulation, and ultimately failure to adapt to the bitter cold of the mines, they were forced to migrate to the surrounding areas near here, to work in the coca and coffee plantations. The people here, much like their ancestors, still live in abject poverty. Undecorated, unadorned, dirt floor adobe shacks, make up the landscape. The trees are full of citrus and banana fruit, the yard cluttered with farm animals. Chickens and pigs are freely roaming in all directions. The people however, seem jubilant and jovial. Traveling back down the road from the abandoned schoolhouse, we stumbled past a quaint house upon the hillside. There was a lady washing clothes out front, who smiled and greeted us. She waived us over. We chatted for a while, and we asked her if there was a restaurant or a place to eat nearby. She offered to cook us a simple lunch of fried eggs, rice and tomatoes, fresh juice, and fried bananas for desert. Meanwhile, we entertained ourselves talking with her, playing with her kids, swatting at the multitude of vicious blood sucking gnats, and eating fruit straight off the trees. Her name was Madalena, a mother of 3 grown children, and a grandmother as well. Her husband was off planting trees in a nearby coca plantation. She was incredibly kind and we paid her accordingly, offering her an additional tip for the hospitality and for sharing a little bit of her world with us.
Leaving Madalena’s house with a belly full of fried bananas, we left her a thank you note, and wandered down the hill a ways, before we unexpectedly ran into Vale, Esteban, and Angeles. They were hanging out at another local establishment talking with the merchant, also ready to leave. So we all took the same taxi back to Coroico, where I gathered my still soaking wet laundry hanging out on the line. I wanted to get out of town as it was getting late. I had to pass through La Paz again, in order to try to get to Cochebamba overnight. I gave a round of hugs and said goodbye a second time to my compadres, the gang of Chileans, and was on my way out of town. Another series of uncomfortable, nauseating bus rides brought me to the dawn of a new day in the squalid throes of Cochebamba. The station was a scattered disarray, with crowds of people, swirling and buzzing, even at 5:30 am in the morning. I was groggy and eager to escape this hectic scene. However, I learned upon my arrival that all the buses leaving for Sucre didn’t depart until that night, so I had to spend my day in this forlorn city. I walked across the street and did a lap through the street market, not buying anything, and only just trying to pass the time to where I could get my head straight. I returned back to the terminal after the similar chaos of the street had given me an idea. I decided to search out the nicest 5 star hotel in Cochebamba, in an effort to get away from this lackluster, sordid side of town. It began raining. I flagged down a taxi and began deciphering directions, on a navigational map, in the waning minutes just before my phone died. The humidity had fogged up the windshield, as the wipers struggled to keep pace with the rain drops. We cruised up and down the same street searching for the address of the hotel. The taxi driver was getting increasingly frustrated until we finally found the place. I went inside, briefly greeted the front desk clerk and dropped my things with the attendant, heading directly for the rich breakfast buffet. The rain let up and a few cups of coffee later, feeling better, I asked if I could leave my things there for the day.
With my bags secure in the swankiest hotel in the area, I went for a walk on the posh side of Cochabamba. I passed a small cafe with street seating and had another cup of coffee while attempting to ‘facetime’ chat with various members of my family, although I was only able to connect with my Mom and Dad. After dropping off my slowly souring batch of wet clothes, at the local lavanderia, I went to catch a movie in the interim. Deciding which movie to see with all the titles in Spanish is not the easiest decision, as the titles don’t translate directly and I was unfamiliar with any of these movies. For example, I picked “El lado bueno de las cosas”, which literally translated means, “the good side of things”, yet the movie title in English is, ‘Silver Linings Playbook’. I really enjoyed this film. It fit my mood and the glum solitude of the rainy day almost perfectly. The theme in a nutshell was that everyone is imperfect and not many things work out the way people intend for them to. However, it is realistic in that most relationships have problems and many families are slightly dysfunctional, yet there is always a ‘silver lining’ to life and you have to make the best of anything. After leaving the movie with a smile, I gathered my clean clothes, and headed to the fancy Palacio de los Portales, across the street from the hotel. I took the hour long tour and learned various factoids about the palace, the grounds, and the former owner.
Apparently, the palace, which now serves solely as a museum of requisite artifacts and late 19th century European design, was never inhabited. The former owner acquired his fortune through the silver mines, and had gradually ascended from a day laborer to a outright claim owner. When he struck a potent vein of silver, the rest was history. He continued to purchase more property, including additional mines, eventually export companies, and a massive estate. He relocated his family to France and fancied a lavish European lifestyle, which he sought to recreate in his hometown in Bolivia, with this palace. Named for the stately grand portals or doors that open up to the lush gardens outside, “Los Portales”, is a captured moment in time, that transcends it’s surroundings. Coincidentally, there was an art exhibit in the basement, from a German painter, Eleanor Grecu, who lived many years amongst a tribal village in the nearby jungles across the mountains from Cochabamba. I was fortunate to get to meet her and speak with her, as she happened to be on site, also giving a tour. She and the other guide I was with, recommended that I go to Villa Tunari, this nearby village, prior to leaving the area. Therefore, I changed my plans and postponed Sucre for another day. I headed back to the swanky hotel, grabbed my backpack, and took a taxi to the street where the ‘combi’ buses leave for the jungle.
I chalked this ‘combi’ ride up there with one of the roughest throughout my trip. In fact, the roads in Bolivia were some of the worst I encountered, apart from the newly constructed highways encircling the capital. This particular mountain pass was in various states of disrepair, often trending from gravel to dirt, back to smooth pavement, to gravel again, to huge offset potholes, and then back to pavement. At high speeds, with erratic drivers, this was enough to make even the most valiant road warrior sick. Amazingly, I survived intact, with my dinner still in the bowels of my intestines, and not on the floor, in my lap, or out the window. We arrived in Villa Tunari approaching the midnight hour. I got dropped off near the center of town and was surprised to see an array of hostels and accommodations for the weary traveler. I found a private room in a decent locale, with a refreshingly clean swimming pool. The only down side was the screen windows adorning the facade of each room, which allowed you to hear everything going on outside, including the ‘discoteca’ nightclub bumping music until dawn. I had also heard about this town from the group of Chileans, who planned on coming here as well. The most acclaimed tourist attraction nearby, Parque Machia, provided a hiking trail though a dense jungle canopy, with the opportunity to see an assortment of high flying howler monkeys and other creatures. I walked from the hostel to the park and hiked the trails the next morning. I only saw a few monkeys, sparsely hanging aloft from the drooping vines above, when I first arrived. I neglected to take a photo of them, thinking I would see many more, but I never did.
The roots of the trees engulfed the ground, like a wild spectacle of nature, consuming anything that got in their way like a giant encroaching tide. The trail was built into the bevy of stacked roots, interspersed with wooden planks, built as walkways over the most arduous parts of the hillside. A simple dirt path comprised the rest. This was my first trek in a rainforest of any kind, albeit, only sub-tropical. It was fascinating to see the incredible diversity of plant and insect species that occupied every square inch of space, from the jungle floor up to the canopy above. The suspect lack of animals apart from the monkeys (which were transplants), was in part, due to the encroaching development of the small towns, roads, and constant traffic that act to slowly wither and disrupt the natural habitat. Additionally, deforestation caused by the need for wood resources and the clear cutting of rainforest land to farm non-native crops, like soybeans, is furthering this species loss. So, although it was a beautiful jungle scene, it felt a bit abstract and devoid, without the presence of animals, and the full biodiversity of nature. I found that in all my travels in South America, respect for the environment, through stewardship and conservation, is generally overshadowed by greater interests for the natural resources of the land, with which the people in power, so often exploit. From the hazardous mining of mineral wealth, to the extraction of petroleum reserves, the damming of rivers, and the clear cutting of rainforest, all stand examples of the global economy’s influence on previously remote, virgin areas. Moreover, although this is true throughout the world, I noticed especially, in Bolivia and Peru, a general lack of concern and a public disregard for the environment, and its care. Trash was strewn in all places, with many of the cities, especially dirty and unkept. The lack of education along these fronts stands as a probable cause. On the contrary, the salvaged spaces that are kept and maintained are still beautiful, if only respected within the boundaries of a “park”.
My brief foray into the jungle was followed by a walk down the road toward the convergence of two small rivers that form a tributary flowing north into the mighty Amazon. I crossed two narrow vehicle bridges, over the river, on foot, until I came to a small restaurant by the roadside. I ordered a fried fish lunch with quinoa that was served complete, with the head in tact. After the meal, and watching a 20 minutes of a Martin Lawrence comedy from the 90’s translated into Spanish, on the grainy reception of the house tv, I walked across the road toward the creek. I was told there was a series of ‘pozas’, (or natural swimming pools), as the creek flowed down into the river. I walked through a field of tall grass towards the creek. I encountered the first poza just downstream from a lady washing her clothes in the creek, with her two young boys playing in the water. I decided to cool off and go for a swim. The boys came over to join me and were horsing around, taking turns pushing each other off a small ledge. Despite being in a remote semi-tropical jungle stream, I felt like I was back in college at Appalachian State, in Boone, NC, reminiscing in my mind about all the swimming holes we used to enjoy in the summertime.
I dried off the best I could, putting my dry shirt on over my wet body, allowing the sun to finish the job. I walked back over the bridge and was able to catch a taxi back to town. I headed back to Cochabamba, along the same rocky road I came in on, just in time to catch a corresponding overnight bus to Sucre, the former colonial era capital. I had heard many rave reviews about Sucre, and it was high on my list to visit. Many travelers had told me it was one of their favorite places of their entire trip. Overnight on the bus, I befriended a young English couple from London. We spoke a few times when the bus wound to a halt for bathroom breaks, because there wasn’t one on our outdated transport. One of the breaks was entertaining as a Cumbia band played across the highway, rocking for passersby and local residents alike. At some point during the night my old, trusty blue baseball hat was stolen by one of the passengers on the bus with me. I awoke the next morning, searched everywhere and asked everyone around me to no avail. I still cannot fathom why someone would steal a sun-faded, sweat-stained, partially broken baseball hat. Needless to say I needed a new hat anyways, perhaps the thievery was a blessing in disguise.
Sucre provided the perfect respite from the constant traveling I had undertaken the last few weeks. I only intended to spend a night here on my way through Potosi to Uyuni, however I ended upstaying for three nights and probably could’ve stayed even longer because I felt so relaxed there. When I arrived, I joined forces with the British couple, Joseph and Adeline, to scout a solid hostel. We found the perfect place, with private rooms, a beautiful sunlit courtyard, and welcoming shared spaces like the kitchen and tv room. We spent the first couple days just lounging around, reading our respective novels, shopping, cooking fresh meals, and taking walks throughout the lovely parks, and plazas, admiring the stately colonial architecture. Sucre was the capital of Bolivia during the silver mining rush and had capitalized on all the wealth that coincided with it. This is still present in the whitewashed, immaculately preserved buildings that fill each principal avenue and line the most prominent squares. The landscaping in each city park is replete with lush gardens, bright and complimentary plant pairings, and winding pathways that invite you to take a leisurely stroll. To top it off, literally, there was a hat store, ‘Sombreros de Sucre’, on the corner across the street from our place. It was closed the first day, due to the lingering ‘Festival’ celebration, but the following day I was able to purchase a nice fedora style hat, of dark brown suede, to replace my stolen ball cap. I proceeded to walk around town, stopping at each store front window I passed, with my reflection yielding a grin that illuminated my face.
The night before I left Sucre, I went with a few of the other British folks from the hostel to see a documentary movie, from a few years ago entitled, ‘The Devil’s Miner’, which portrayed the story of a young teenager who worked in the silver mines of Potosi. The story centered on the life of a 14 year old boy, supposedly working in the mines since he was 10, when his father passed away. The movie depicted the harsh working conditions and cold, bitter reality of the unfortunate lives of the miners. When I left the theatre, actually just a bar with an upstairs ‘screening room’, I couldn’t help but feel pity for these people and all the other miners throughout the world that work under such duress. It helped to provide greater perspective and at least some background history of the notorious mining site, which dates back to the 15th century and the first Spanish colonial invasion. I had previously planned on going to the mine and doing a tour based on accounts from other travelers who spoke highly of it. Despite seeing the movie and having a negative account of the scene I wanted to see it for myself even if it required going on another ‘tour’.
When you enter the mine you walk under the fortifications originally constructed in the 15th century by Spanish conquistadors and slave labor. These arched tunnels have seen the extraction of over 5 centuries worth of silver from Potosi, and although the production is a slim fraction of it’s zenith, it is still producing relative amounts of precious metals. Our tour group of about 10 people were led single file through the narrow corridors, up through ladder shafts, and around each bend by guides who claimed to be former miners themselves. They provided a contrasting account to the movie, stating that each miner was self employed, there were no overlords or micro managers. Each miner was free to stake his own claim, and upon striking a potent vein, the claim was respected and untouched by other miners. The guides maintained that the miners were very proud of their work, they could come and go as they pleased, and no one forced them to work there. They stated that the story in the movie was a fabrication, full of deceit, and wholly untrue. Overall though, it was fascinating to see this famous silver mine which produced many of the riches the Spaniards set out to exploit in the New World, and interesting to see both sides of the story.
One of the last stops on my travels through Peru and Bolivia was the epic ‘safari’ style tour through the vast desert landscapes of southwestern Bolivia, including most significantly the massive salt flats, La Salar de Uyuni. I had taken the bus from Potosi, the highest city in the world at over 15,000 feet in elevation, to the small town of Uyuni. From there I stayed in a modest hostal near the town center and woke early the next morning to arrange my spot on a tour. The desert tours consisted of 4 days and 3 nights of trekking across the salt flats, through incredible desert rock formations, and past multi-colored lagoons replete with native Flamingos. I arranged to be dropped off in San Pedro de Atacama at the end of the four day tour instead of going back to Uyuni. I spent the next four days riding with three relaxed Brazilian guys, an irritable Spanish girl, who complained about nearly everything, her British husband, and our guide in a late 90’s model Toyota Landcrusier. We were just one vehicle of approximately 30 SUV’s, of the same make and model. We passed some of the most impressive scenic vistas I have been fortunate to see with my own eyes. Pictures are not even remotely capable of capturing the immensity and the grandeur. I was floored at the salt flats, and awestruck by the clarity and brilliance of the water color in each lagoon. From a blue matching the lofted clouds above, to a deep shimmering red which contrasted the surrounding desert, the waters took on the color of their respective environment. I learned that heavy metals, natural bacteria, and other micro-organisms provided the various tints to the water and were also what attracted the Flamingos to feed on.
The last day of the tour concluded with an sunrise departure from our last desert hotel accommodation towards the thermally active volcanic region approaching the Chilean border. We had the opportunity to walk amongst geysers and bubbling thermal pools of sulfur and magma at the earth’s surface. We then spent an hour soaking in a natural thermal spring with a sandy bottom that was relaxing and heavenly despite the crowds of people in our company. After the pool we crossed the border into Chile and were dropped off in San Pedro de Atacama. I ended up staying with the Brazilians for the next few days prior to crossing back into northern Argentina for the last time. The Brazilian guys were so friendly and hospitable, easily including me into their circle.We spent several days lounging around San Pedro, even opting for two more tours, just when I thought I was ‘touristed out’. I went solo on a sandboarding excursion at midnight during a full moon. It was great the first few times down the massive sand dune until I caught my front edge and took in a face full of sand. The DJ at the bottom of the hill blasted music up the hill, providing a club like atmosphere.
We did a stargazing tour the second night which was amusing probably more for the guided lecture than for the stars themselves. Our guide was a major proponent of many alternative viewpoints on creation and existence including prominently, the ‘lizard theory’, which entails that many of the world’s leaders are descended from an alien lizard race, George W. Bush among them. The stars were magnificent as well and the high powered telescopes allowed us to see the glowing burn from millions of miles away. The serenity of the night sky allowed for enough introspection to reflect on the immensity of the universe, my place in it, all the wonderful adventures I had taken part in thus far, and to decide I was done with guided ‘tours’ for the duration of my trip.