The whole off-the-grid adventure was the most fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants thing we’ve done on this trip. That’s because we found literally NO information in guidebooks or on the Internet about how to navigate these towns and rivers. We don’t think we’re the first, but very few tourists have done it. That was part of the whole allure of the scheme, definitely. I’m sure we felt a small degree of the same nervous excitement felt by the first European explorers to set foot in the new world. The Amazon is one of the very few places left that still is largely unknown and undiscovered by outsiders. But it got me thinking…what happens now that we have written online for the whole world to read about how to do this? Did we ruin one of the few off-the-grid adventures left in Bolivia by making it more accessible? What is this urge to explore everywhere and see everything? Is it universally human or is it uniquely western? I recently read that many other countries in the world have national parks and preserved wild-lands that are totally inaccessible to people (in Barbara Kingsolver’s Small Wonder). They preserve because they know it’s important, and they don’t place equal importance on people being able to get there to photograph everything. In the U.S., of course, our national parks are all mostly accessible in an average non-4WD car. I understand the importance of human appreciation for conservation, but I wish we could still leave some natural places totally devoid of human contact.
I guess these are my real questions: Do we have to conquer everything? What will happen once there is nothing left undiscovered or undescribed? And do we ruin the unwritten-about places by writing about them?
After finally getting off La Pinta and setting foot back on dry land, we found ourselves in basically the middle of nowhere. We were happy that River boat hitchhiking in Bolivia was done. It was a tiny port with a few rundown boats parked and a few thatch shacks at the end of a dirt road. Truly the back of beyond, like someplace out of Heart of Darkness or “Apocalypse Now”. We knew it might be a long wait for a ride into Trinidad, so we sat down at a cafe and ordered “almuerzos”–hot noodle soup followed by a plate of rice, spaghetti, potatoes, and beef. The heat was oppressive and we were pouring sweat even sitting in the shade. Thankfully, while we were eating, a dusty, falling-apart taxi pulled up chock full of supplies. While the driver unloaded his deliveries, we finished our lunch and afterwards waited a few minutes for more people to fill the car. With four locals in the backseat, the driver, and Zach and I sharing the front passenger seat, we bounced off along the bumpy track towards Trinidad. The short trip included a river crossing on a very rickety wooden ferry, and passed through several more tiny port villages.
Finally we reached Trinidad, a small city which is capital of Bolivia’s jungly Beni province. Trinidad is known for it’s many motorcycles; everyone seems to have one and there are hardly any cars. The motorcycles zip around the streets like mad, ignoring traffic laws and narrowly missing accidents at every turn. It’s a miracle we didn’t get run over! Tourists can also rent motorcycles. If that’s your idea of fun, go for it. To me it sounds like inevitable road rash, if not worse.
Finding an acceptable hostel took awhile, but we eventually stumbled into Alojamiento Carmen, a decent place with fans and shared bathrooms, the highlight being the cable TV with a plethora of English channels. They had the Latin American versions of TLC, WB, and FOX, so we spent a lot of time in the room watching random things like “No Reservations” (love Anthony Bourdain), “Ace of Cakes”, “Friends”, “Two and a Half Men”, “Grey’s Anatomy” (My guilty pleasure…but what is GOING ON there? I’ve missed so much!), and the worst one ever, “Man vs. Food.” Normally I get so disgusted watching Adam stuff his face and get fatter every episode, but try watching it in Bolivia and just see how horribly HUNGRY and JEALOUS you get!
Okay, that was a major TV tangent. But really, it ended up being good that we had so many channels because there’s not much else to do in Trinidad! The city is so hot and humid that you start sweating after walking only one block. There are also a lot of mosquitoes out at night. Suffice it to say, after only a few hours of wandering the streets, we were bored.
That night we had a bit of an existential crisis. We had planned to stay for a couple nights in Trinidad, find another boat, and continue down the Rio Mamoré to Guayaramerin, on the Brazilian border. There were two major reasons we had decided to do this: 1. Getting off the Gringo Trail and 2. It’s cheap! What we finally admitted to ourselves this night in Trini was that despite our best-laid plans, we were bored. We had been a bit bored, in fact, ever since realizing how behind on our budget we were, and cutting back on all activities and extras to try to make up for it. What ensued was a long discussion about our priorities and how to make this the best possible experience. We came to two conclusions: 1. We don’t want to go into debt on this trip. (Debt-free is the way to be!) 2. If we’re not having fun then we need to change something. Therefore, a hard decision was made. We conceded to the possibility of returning home earlier (in June rather than July). Nothing is official (we still don’t have a return ticket), but doing this would definitely ease the financial strain and allow us to enjoy the time we have left a lot more. We’d rather say we had an AMAZING TIME for 7 months than that we toughed it out on very little money for 8 months. (Although, of course, if anyone wants to send us some $$, we won’t say no, lol.) So in the interest of making it back to the states faster and ditching the heat, mosquitoes, and boat boredom, we changed our plan (again) and decided that Brazil can wait for another trip. “Let’s get out of this sweaty town, back to the mountains and Perú!” we said. Arequipa, Perú, was the next place we were really excited for, and we desperately needed some excitement. If only we knew how impossible it would be get back on the grid…
Please read the beginning of our River boat Hitchhiking in the Bolivian Amazon Aventura!
Our boat finally left in the afternoon, around 4pm, after we were initially told 9am. “That’s on time in Bolivia” the owner of our hostel told us. We turned into the swift current and the motor vibrated the floor as we sat at the front in our wooden chairs next to our tent. It was a nice home, with the breeze in our faces relieving the intense heat and blowing away the bugs. We were finally off, hitchhiking Bolivian boats in the Amazon.
We brought our own food to save money and cooked it on our tiny camp stove, finally using the fuel I had been carrying fuel for for the last five months. There were seven others on the boat with us: the captain who ignored us for the most part, four crew members that could have been replaced by one hard worker, and two women who cleaned and cooked for the men. One funny thing about the journey is that no one in Puerto Villarroel knew how long the journey would take. We got answers ranging fro two to six days. When we climbed onto the boat and asked the crew members, who were sitting down together eating lunch, one said “two days” and another said “five.” We found this quite hilarious considering they probably make this run several times every season. The food we brought was the following: 10 tomatoes, 2 bags of pasta, a bag of garlic, cooking oil, 10 eggs, 1 can of tuna, 1 can of hotdogs, 10 sandwich buns, 1 bottle of spicy ketchup, 12 liters of water, and 1 bottle of Cuban rum to bring out the sailors in us.
The Rio Ichilo wound it’s way through the ever thickening jungle, and we saw hardly any evidence of civilization besides an occasional palm-roofed hut or a small fishing boat. The first day was short and as the sun began to creep into the treetops we tied up to a tree along shore and shut down for the night. The instant we slowed and edged toward shore, the mosquitoes attacked us like we have never been attacked before. Huge, vicious, and hungry beasts they were. We quickly retired to our tent and made sure it was well sealed. I got up in the night to use the bathroom and, since it had been the rainy and cloudy season since we arrived in South America, I was able to see the southern sky for the first time in my life; the Southern Cross and Milky Way above me so alien from the memorized constellations of the north. But I couldn’t enjoy the experience because I could feel the blood leaving my body and flying off into the night. I sat in bed scratching for awhile, listing to the sounds around us. The jungle has a voice of it’s own, loud and chaotic, straddling the line between peaceful and terrifying. Day Two:
At daybreak the engine started and we continued our slow drift northward. We woke with fresh bug bites from four mosquitoes that had snuck in during our nighttime unsealing of the tent. They were full of blood when we squashed them. There were also hundreds of the little devils clinging to our tent, desperate for entry, and we didn’t dare venture out until the boat had gained enough speed that the moving air pushed them away from our cozy hangout. We cooked eggs and read and watched the never-ending jungle pass us by. Every time that the air became stagnant, the bugs would attack us and we would reapply our OFF! We were told that this region didn’t have malaria, but we had purchased drugs for treatment just to be safe. Even if it wasn’t present here, we figured it was a nice addition to our bag of medicines. Since the antimalarials have such bad psychological side effects, our plan is always the same: avoid being bitten and keep the drugs handy for treatment. There is a quick and easy blood test kit to find out if you actually have malaria or just a random jungle fever.
Our entertainment was watching the river pass, eating, reading, and writing. We got a bunch of blogs written out, ready for when we arrived back in civilization. The jungle, which had started off with shorter trees and dense brush, was now getting thicker with taller trees covered in vines. We talked about how awesome it is that the Amazon still contains un-contacted tribes. The meaning of “impenetrable” was becoming clear to us. This time, as the sun started to get low, we took a few quick sunset pictures and beat the bugs into our safe place in the tent.
Our boat, however, continued by headlight late into the night, not stopping until sometime around midnight. We could hear the crew whipping around the towels they used to slap bugs from their skin making a “smack! smack!” every few seconds. It sounded miserable. This was it, hitchhiking Bolivian boats in the Amazon. Day Three:
No mosquitoes had gotten in this time. But they were even thicker on the outside of our tent and we couldn’t exit for over an hour after we started moving. “Muchos mosquitoes!” The crew would say as they laughed at us hiding in our tent. Eventually we gained the courage to leave our sanctuary and made some breakfast. We asked how much longer we had to go and the response was “Mañana….” which by now meant “I have no idea…” to us. Since we were at the end of the rainy season, we had expected to deal with some wet times on the boat, but we were blessed with amazing sunny days. I was starting to get a tan going and we were pretty relaxed, sipping on some sweet rum and eating tuna fish sandwiches. Then, for some reason, around noon, we pulled up along the bank and tied up the boat in the middle of nowhere. We ran for out tent because the army of bloodsuckers was engulfing us. “What are we doing! Vamos!” we said as we baked in our sauna-temperature tent. We watched as out of nowhere canoes started pulling up and tying up to us, loaded with plantains.
About 12 of these boats came through, each slowly unloading their supply, getting paid, and puttering off. This banana market took over an hour and was the most miserable part of the trip: too many bugs to leave the tent but too hot to stay inside. “VAMOS VAMOS VAMOS!” we yelled. No one listened to the whiny gringos.
We were told that we would arrive in Trinidad around 10 or 11am and our captain continued to sail our boat for the entire night, the groan of the engine easing us to sleep. At least there were no bugs this night as we kept moving forward hitchhiking Bolivian boats in the Amazon. Day Four:
By this time we were pretty bored. Thankfully because of not stopping during the night, there were no mosquitoes when we woke. We were down to only our cooking oil, garlic, and a bag of pasta, so that’s what we had for breakfast. As we ate, a crew member rushed us to hurry and pack up because we would be there around 10am. At noon they said it would be another hour and by 1:30 we saw a few docks and a couple shacks along the shore. “You can get a ten minute taxi to Trini from here” they said. We paid our captain the 400 Bolivianos that we owed him and set foot on dry land. For some reason we both knew that this wasn’t the end of the adventure.
Check out the rest of the story of Hitchhiking Bolivian Boats in the Amazon!
If there’s one thing Bolivia is determined to teach me, it’s patience. This is not my strongest quality, so learning it takes a lot. And believe me, we dealt with a lot of waiting in Puerto Villarroel for Bolivian boat hitchhiking into the Amazon. We knew our perfect scenario, finding a boat ride to Trinidad the same day we arrived, was unlikely. But the only way to get down the river was to start looking for a boat. We first tried the dockside restaurant with a “Tourist Information” sign on it, but the lady inside looked shocked to see a tourist and of course knew nothing about boats. So we stashed our packs under the stilted building and I went walking along the river.
Next someone directed me to the naval office, where the military officers at least tried to help this crazy dreadlocked hippy bum from a country Bolivia doesn’t get along with too well. They found a boat captain who was leaving in the afternoon, a glimmer of hope! But all the captain said was “I don’t have much space.” When I asked him the price he ignored me and told me to go look at the boat, before walking away. Since his boat was 1km away, we didn’t know the price, and it didn’t sound promising, we didn’t walk to look at the boat and never saw the captain again. So more sitting around, more asking random passersby. Most people want to help but just don’t know anything, so they direct you to one person who directs you to another person, and it all just turns into a wild goose chase.
Then finally — success? An old man led me on a more profitable goose chase to a man driving by in a truck whose boat was also, supposedly leaving in the afternoon. We settled on a price, agreed to wait for him where we were, shook hands and everything. Shazam! “After lunch,” was the time frame he’d given me. So I sat with the stuff while Zach took off to buy groceries and water for the trip. And then we sat. And sat and sat. 1pm, 2pm, 3pm. I was desperately craving a shower and a nap but still holding out hope that he guy would show up. “Doesn’t he want our money?” we asked. Apparently not. Around 4pm, after watching the one way-too-crowded boat mentioned earlier leave, we gave up for the day and moved into the only hostel in town, hoping for better luck mañana.
The next day we woke at 7am, not wanting to miss any boat departures. Silly U.S.-bred timeliness! Rather quickly we were informed that nothing was leaving that day but one boat was leaving the next morning. Some guy called the captain over to talk to us, but he wanted 200 Bolivianos ($29) each and for us to bring our own food. The only other tidbit of info the Lonely Planet had given us on this trip was that it was supposed to cost 100 Bolivianos including food. So ARGH! We said no, maybe this Bolivian boat hitchhiking thing wasn’t going to work out. We were hoping to SAVE money on this trip, not break even. But as soon as we arrived back in our room, we both had realized that this was probably the best offer we were going to get to get out of this stinkin’ town. It would cost more to get anywhere new by bus. So we did an about face and accepted the offer. “Woohoo, we hopefully have a boat ride tomorrow!” we cheered. Now how to kill a day in the sleepy, nothing town of PV: sit and watch The Sopranos all day because you sweat if you move and there are way too many mosquitoes outside.
Day Three. “Please, let us leave today!” We got up early again and waited where we were supposed to wait. Again, it proved completely unnecessary. The captain had said he’d come get us around 9am, but who knew what that meant. Our hope started waning when at noon we were still sitting there, watching a monsoon downpour, with no departure imminent. We thought we might have to stay another night and leave by bus in the morning, accepting defeat. Then finally, finally, somebody random appeared and led us through the rain to the boat. It seemed it was going to leave that day, hooray! So we loaded our stuff, bought more food, and settled in to wait longer to see if the boat would actually leave… Who thought up this Bolivian boat hitchhiking idea anyhow?
Recently we found ourselves in a kind of a rut. Travel had started to drain on us and the whole “check out a new place every couple days” thing was just not as exciting s it had been. We were weighing a lot of different options for the next section of our trip, and we decided that what we really needed was to get further out there, away from the rest of the tourist crowds. In our guidebook there was mention of boat hitchhiking into the Bolivian Amazon . It told us what towns had ports but besides that, there was very little information. After searching the Internet and exhausting other guidebooks, we concluded that these river systems were, in fact “out there”, beyond the realms of modern society. So we set aside three weeks of our lives to go see what kinds of trouble we could get ourselves into.
The adventure started in Santa Cruz. From there we needed to go to a small port village called Puerto Villarroel, where, theoretically, we could ride up the Rio Ichilo to the city of Trinidad. Trinidad is a decent-sized city and easily reachable by bus, but we wanted to ride the river the whole way. After asking every bus agency in the Santa Cruz bus terminal, we learned that the way to Puerto Villarroel was something like this: Take a bus going to Cochabamba, get off at Villa Tunari, and from there catch a smaller bus to Puerto. Sounded easy enough. The problem was that we had slept in and missed the morning buses to Cochabamba and the next ones were night buses leaving between 5 and 9pm. Six hours to Villa Tunari put us there at 11pm if we took the 5pm bus, and then two hours to Puerto put as at a 1am arrival time. Or the 9pm bus supposedly put us at Puerto Villarroel at 5am (dawn). We thought about the other option of just spending another night in Santa Cruz, but we were ready to get this thing started. So we decided to start the adventure of right and risk getting to Villa Tunari at 3am, hoping they actually had a terminal or at least a safe spot to sit out of the rain if there weren’t night buses to Puerto (we assumed that there were not).
Our bus ended up leaving close to 10pm (one hour late) which we would have normally been mad about but this time it was a lucky break. I tried to stay awake to make sure we got off at the right place, but somehow I must have dozed off because we woke to the other passengers kicking our seats and yelling that this was our stop. (Lesson from the Samaipata mess: tell as many people as possible where you need to get off and they will help you!) So we got out in the dark and rain in Villa Tunari, no bus terminal or further transportation in sight. The bus driver said that we could catch a ride “here or there”, whatever that meant. Luckily there was a nice awning to shield the rain and we sat down on our backpacks to survey the situation. A friendly truck driver confirmed our suspicions that Villa Tunari was completely the wrong place and that we should have gotten off an hour early in Ivirgarzama, where the main highway intersets the road to Puerto Villarroel. “Good information we got as usual” we said as we checked the time: 2:30am. What is with always being early lately?????
The plan was to wait until sunrise, not draw attention to ourselves lest any creepers be about, and then it would be easy to catch a ride, since it was the main road between Bolivia’s two biggest cities. “I think the reason people give us such bad information,” said Carrie, “is because no one travels, especially to these places, and no one wants to tell us that they don’t know how to get somewhere. I wish they would just say ‘I don’t know!’” Eventually Carrie was able to take a nap on her pack, in true bum style, and I paced and paced feeling a mixture of fatigue, boredom, hunger, and stress. At first light I asked a taxi-looking van which way he was going and after some debate the driver agreed to take us to Ivirgazama for 40 Bolivianos, which was a great price but we were still mad at having to pay extra money because we listened to bad advice. The driver was friendly and I think happy for the extra money, though he couldn’t have made much profit because it was a long drive. “I’m a mechanic, not a taxi,” he said, laughing.
After an hour or so we were left off on the road to Puerto where there was a nice indigenous woman selling chicken, rice, and soup (breakfast?) for a cheap price. With full stomachs we felt ready to push onward and asked people how we could go about doing so. We were again given bad advice, twice, before finding ourselves walking 1km to the town plaza where there were supposedly rides to the end of the road. By this point we were starting to get strange glances at our white skin and large backpacks so with smiles on our faces we looked at each other, simultaneously realized that we had finally made it “off the grid.” We walked and asked more people and finally found a spot with shared taxis that traversed the final 25km to the end of the road. We jumped in one for 5 Bolivianos each. We passed thatch-roofed huts and fields of coca riding on a perfect new road in a car that somehow had the steering wheel and pedals switched from the right side to the left, but the gauges remained on the right. We soon came to a small village were left off where the road dead-ended into the Rio Ichilo. It was before 9am and we couldn’t have been more excited to get to the slow, sticky, and lazy village of Puerto Villarroel. Why were we here again?
We arrived in Santa Cruz before we expected to, so going into the city we had no idea what to expect. At 5am in the bus station we looked up a cheap hostel in the guidebook and then a map to see how far away it was. It was a little over 2km to central Santa Cruz, a walk we were getting used to after swearing off taxis to save money.
The first thing we noticed was the heat and humidity-very tropical-feeling. Sweat poured off our bodies but we made the walk fine with help from the extra near-sea-level oxygen. After checking in and leaving our bags, we went exploring. There were very few backpackers compared to what we had gotten used to in the rest of Bolivia. This was a nice change since sometimes the places that have to deal with less gringos treat the ones they do meet a little bit better. We found a lady selling soft-serve ice cream, the best soft-serve we have had in South America. At first it was super hard to even understand what people were saying because of their super-strange accents. So many words that were supposed to end in ‘s’ somehow had the ‘s’ omitted. But, as in every new place, we got the hang of it eventually and their speech started to make some sense.
For being the largest city in Bolivia, Santa Cruz had the feel of a sleepy jungle town. Everyone moved at a slowish pace that was refreshing after places like La Paz where there is so much pushing and shoving. All the buildings were also only a few stories high with only a couple of skyrise apartments breaking the overall flatness of the city. We kept on the lookout for sloths in the trees, as supposedly there are a few left in the city despite the relocation of most. Our last day we spent hanging out in the central plaza, Plaza 24 de Septiembre, watching old men play chess and shoeshiners on their knees polishing already-shiny shoes. About once per hour there would be a blast of rain that would last just long enough to clear the park and then the sun would quickly return, sometimes bringing perfect rainbows.
Santa Cruz is definitely different than other Bolivian cities and we can see why it is said to be “more Brazilian than Bolivian”. More tropical, less hurried, and in general easy to get around in, we were glad to have raveled the extra distance to check out Bolivia’s most-populated city.
Well, we’ve got our malaria pills, sunscreen, and all batteries fully charged, and we’re headed off to the Amazon basin! Today we are taking a bus to Puerto Villarroel, from where we are going to catch a boat up the Rio Ichilo all the way to the Brazilian border! From there we will dip into Brazil for a day (you don’t need a visa if you stay just in the border town), see what shenanigans we can get into, and then try to keep riverboat-hitchhiking all the way back into Perú.
The exciting thing about all this is that there is virtually no information about how to do this–not in the guidebooks, not on the web, nowhere. Don’t worry though, it’s a safe and gringo-friendly area. We’re going to fly, (er, boat rather) by the seat of our pants and we don’t know how long this trip will take or if we’ll even make it into Perú this way. But the mystery of the unknown is the fun! A new, real, off-the-beaten-path adventure! So folks, we’re not expecting much Internet off in the jungle, although of course we will check in whenever we can. We’ve still got a few posts scheduled to catch you all up to date. And once we finish these crazy riverboat rides, you betcha we’ll have some stories! Until then, cross your fingers we don’t get too many mosquito bites or go all Heart of Darkness or anything. Hasta luego!