Boat Hitchhiking Into The Bolivian Amazon: Part Two

Waiting for Bolivian Boat Hitchhiking

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?

PART 1

PART 3

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Boat Hitchhiking Into The Bolivian Amazon: Part One

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?

Part 2

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Jungle Fever

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!

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Peru’s Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Islands and Taquile Island

Puno is a great base for exploring some of Lake Titicaca‘s amazing islands on the Peru side, including the Floating Islands and Taquile Island.  We originally wanted to spend a night on one of the islands but it didn’t work out with our schedule.  Instead we opted for the more common day tour (40 Soles=$15, not including lunch), worried that it might be too cheesy and touristy for us.  While it was popular and touristy, it was for good reason and we still loved it!  The magical islands are just too cool to not enchant all who visit!

We left Puno’s dock around 7:30am in a group of 25 in a slow boat that thankfully had heating and comfy seats.  After about 30 minutes we arrived at the famous Islas Flotatantes, or Floating Islands.  These are exactly what they sound like…islands that are floating on the lake surface!  They were built by the Uros people several hundred years ago in an attempt by the tribe to isolate themselves from other cultures (kind of like the Amish).  The islands are made by lashing together a bunch of totora reed roots, and then layering cut totora reeds over and over again on top.  The islands are about 2.5 meters thick and they have to add a new layer of reeds every two weeks!  The ground kind of squishes when you walk on it and you can feel the motion of the water.  In all there are about 70 floating islands clustered together, each with five or six families living in one-room houses, also made of reeds.

Peru's Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Villages
One floating island and one of their awesome ceremonial boats.

The residents of the Floating Islands we visited are totally dependent on tourism–they receive visits from the boat tours every day (making money from the tour companies) and also sell handcrafts to the tourists.  It made me happy to know, however, that there is another group of Uros on other floating islands further out on the lake who are still living traditionally, untouched by tourism.

Peru's Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Villages
Uros woman showing off a tapestry she made.

At our stop on one floating islands we watched a demonstration of how the islands are built, looked inside one of the houses, looked at the handicrafts for sale, and learned more about the Uros culture.  A couple more interesting tidbits:

The Floating Islands in Peru are usually staked because “we don’t want to float to Bolivia without passports,” we were told.  However, for certain events which require more space, such as weddings and football (soccer) games, the people will push two or more islands together!

Peru's Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Villages
One of the houses on the floating island.

Titicaca is .08% salt.  Our guide blamed the salty water for the Uros women being “a little bit round.”  He said this out loud in English and then whispered it in Spanish so they wouldn’t hear him!

Peru's Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Villages
Row row row your boat.

At the end of our time on the floating island most of the group took off in one of the crazy boats for 5 Soles extra.  Zach and I opted not to, and we were glad we did because we ended up getting to talk to some of the Uros more casually.  One lady even gave us some reeds to eat after we saw her munching on them and asked to try.  She said they were “muy dulce” (very sweet) but after trying them and finding they tasted like nothing but water I felt bad for her for probably never trying any real desserts!

Next we took off on a three-hour trip to the center of the lake to Isla Taquile.  Good naptime with the noise and vibration of the boat!!!  Taquile is a real island (not floating) inhabited by a group of Aymara people.  We got off the boat and walked 400 meters uphill on a beautiful stone path.  Others in our group were struggling with the walk (remember Titicaca is at 4000 meters altitude!) but we charged up the hill, thankful for our Inca Trail training and one month of acclimatization in Cuzco.  The views of the lake from the main plaza were stunning.  Isla Taquile is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the intricate traditional knitting done by both the men and women.  We browsed through knitting museum and shop, full of amazing hats, gloves, scarves, and sweaters, but only bought seven cool little bracelets for 7 Soles ($2) from some kids.  Knitting and clothing is obviously a huge part of the Taquile culture.  Everywhere we went kids and old people were spinning thread on spools or knitting something.  Their beautiful handmade clothing also has cultural meaning: men whose hats are all colored are married while men whose hats are white on top are single.  Likewise, women who wear dark clothes are married and those who wear bright clothes are available.  The kids of different ages even wear different colored hats.

Peru's Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Villages
Lake Titicaca from Taquile’s main square

Walking around the narrow stone streets of Taquile was so refreshing-no cars, no pollution, and gorgeous turquoise blue lake in every direction!  After lunch we continued walking across the island looking at the simple houses and hills terraced with stone walls for farming.  We got to the other side of the island and walked down 100-ish steps to another dock to our boat.  Three hours back to Puno had us snoring away again.

Peru's Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Villages
We had to pay this man 1 Sole to take his picture. Then he had his eyes closed. Still a great face.

Despite the inundation of tourism, I was impressed with how authentic the island cultures of Titicaca seemed.  Between the craziness of the floating islands and the gorgeous tranquility of Taquile, the island tour was downright magical.

Enjoy this post about Peru’s Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Islands and Taquile Island? Check out our archives for other adventures! Also, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram @laaventuraproject and subscribe to our Youtube Channel.

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Pisco and the Islas Ballestas – Peru Wildlife

Pisco is a town 4 hours south of Lima. It was 80% destroyed in a 2007 earthquake and is still barely rebuilt. We thought it might be interesting to see, but there really is not much there!  Lots of piles of rubble.  This church with a cracked belltower is the oldest building still standing. We were most excited to take a tour to the Islas Ballestas – The Galapagos of Peru.

Pisco

The Islas Ballestas have been called “The Poor Man’s Galapagos.”  I’m not sure they were that cool but we were glad we went.  We arranged a tour from Pisco for only 40 Soles ($13) apiece!  Here we are, sporting our fat-people life jackets and bandanas in case of bird poop!  Thankfully we didn’t suffer any direct hits.

Islas Ballestas
Really, would that save me if I was drowning?

The first stop was this strange ancient carving in a sand dune.  No one really knows what it’s supposed to be, but some guess it might be a San Pedro cactus, which was used for spiritual/medicinal rituals by ancient tribes.

Islas Ballestas

We circled the Islas Ballestas for about an hour and saw tons of sea lions, penguins, and other birds!  They harvest certain birds’ poop (called “guano”) to be used for fertilizer.  For awhile it was Peru’s biggest export!

Islas Ballestas
See the penguins in the foreground?
Islas Ballestas
They’re posing!

Sometimes people spot dolphins on the boat ride out to the islands, although unfortunately we didn’t see any.  All the penguins and sea lions were fun though!  Animals make people so happy; everyone on our boat was smiling the whole time!

Enjoy this post about Islas Ballestas ? Check out our archives for other adventures! Also, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram @laaventuraproject and our subscribe to our Youtube Channel.

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1 if by land, 2 if by sea, 3 if by air, 4 if a combination of all these modes of transportation

Our ticket to Medellin, Colombia is a one-way ticket.  We want to travel overland throughout all of South America for one year after arriving.  The plan is to end up in Venezuela or all the way back in Colombia again in October 2012 to end the adventure.

Then how are we going to get home?

We have two options:

The Boring Option:  Buy a one-way flight ticket back to the states from Venezuela or Colombia.  Lame.

The Fun Option:  Continue the traveling over land and sea!  A little geography for you–there is a small section of rainforest connecting Colombia and Panama (South America and Central America) called The Darien Gap.  According to Wikipedia (which is not always reliable, I know) “The Darien Gap is a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest separating Panama‘s Darién Province in Central America fromColombia in South America. It measures just over 160 km (99 mi) long and about 50 km (31 mi) wide. Roadbuilding through this area is expensive, and the environmental toll is steep. Political consensus in favor of road construction has not emerged, and consequently there is no road connection through the Darién Gap connecting North/Central America with South America. It is therefore the missing link of the Pan-American Highway.”  While some brave/idiotic souls have successfully trekked through the Darien by jeep or on foot, every source I’ve ever read strongly advises travelers NOT to attempt it.  Not only is there no road, making it a long, hot, and difficult trek, but the geography, isolation and lawlessness of the area makes it a perfect passage for drug traffickers, guerilla groups, and other unsavory characters.  Basically, you’re just asking to be kidnapped or killed if you enter the area.  Not to be melodramatic, but you’d have to have a death wish to go there.  NO ONE DOES IT.

So, those problems make getting back to the US entirely overland impossible.  But what you CAN do is take a BOAT from Colombia to Panama!  Although there’s no commercial service, it is apparently very common for travelers to catch rides on private sailboats going from Cartagena, Colombia to Portabelo, Panama.  The trip takes 4-5 days, and you usually get to stop at some paradise-like beaches in the San Blas islands on the way.  As someone who’s never been sailing for more than a few hours, that trip just sounds like such an adventure!  The cost for the passage is usually around $300 per person.  Then, once we arrive in Panama, we can easily take buses all the way through Central America to arrive back in the US, and see more beautiful and new places along the way!  Zach calculated the estimated cost of bussing it all the way back to Texas from Panama to be about $400. So, with the $300 boat ride and the $400 busses, that fits perfectly into our $700 return trip budget.  What that doesn’t include, however, is money for food and accommodations all through Central America.  What it will come down to is whether or not we have enough extra money to afford those living expenses while extending our trip through Central America.  If we’ve got the money, we’ve got the time!

Obviously, I’m all for the FUN way to get back!  It’s a long way off, but I’m definitely planning to try to live a little under-budget all through South America so that we can afford to add Central America on to the end!  Let’s hope it can happen!

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