The Three-Day Bus Marathon

After spending a couple days in Trinidad, we decided that the whole jungle adventure sounded a lot better than it actually turned out to be.  After spending over a week to get away from it all, we found ourselves again at the bus station looking for the fastest way back to civilization.  We wanted to get straight back to La Paz from where it’s a quick jump back to Perú and new and exciting things.  This turned out to be harder than expected.  There are three roads in and out of Trinidad.  One heads north to the Brazilian border, a journey of unknown hours that drops you off in the middle of the jungle.  The second is the road to La Paz.  This road is about a two days’ journey and at the time of our inquiries was passable only by 4×4 since it is destroyed every rainy season.  The third highway is the main way in, but involves backtracking all the way to Santa Cruz, an overnight trip, and then taking another overnighter to La Paz from there.  After some research, the 3rd option, though boring and backtracking, turned out to be the shorter, cheaper, and easier adventure.  So we decided to come back later that night and try to pick up a cheap ticket for the next day.

We had noticed the hundreds of motorcycles in the center of Trinidad, blocking up the main square, and sure enough when we got to the bus station the news was bad.  “No hay bus a Santa Cruz.” “Mañana?” we asked.  “No sé.” The Bolivians were again taking up their favorite hobby which is protesting things by blocking the main roads with rocks and angry mobs.  We had encountered these protests before while en route from Coroico to La Paz.  Our van left us off at the edge of the blockage and we had to walk 4km through lines of boulders placed every block or so.  The protesters were angry about that cost of minivan rides or something, but we were super annoyed because we had never had to walk that far with all of our stuff before.  On the La Paz side of the blockade, the police were showing up armed with huge bottles of pepper spray and the protestors were starting to get loud.  We jumped into the first taxi we found and were happy to be out of that mess.

So, after a night of not knowing how long we would have to endure Trinidad, we walked back to the bus station and were happy to hear that we would be able to take a bus to Santa Cruz (50 Bs each) that night.  So we stashed our big backs and took the cameras, journals, and books to the park where we sat all day waiting for our night bus.  These days sitting around are sometimes nice times to catch up on writing, but after a few hours we are usually pretty bored.  Usually we end up getting ice cream, and sometimes a beer helps to pass the time.  Our bus left at 7pm so we arrived at the terminal the usual 30 minutes before, and the bus left the usual one hour late.  We were tired and the seats reclined, so as soon as we were on the smooth road, we feel right asleep.

At 5:30am we woke in Santa Cruz, feeling some deja vu.  The Santa Cruz bus terminal is the hub that we have spent the most time in this entire trip and we hate it.  But they do sell good cheesy bread which made a nice breakfast.  We were able to get right on a bus to Cochabamba (50 Bs each) after waiting less than an hour and fell right back to sleep.  When I woke we were still in the jungle, but the mountains were visible on the horizon which brought some hope that we might actually make it.  But this bus was super-slow!  We had hoped to make it to La Paz in a perfect 24 hours after leaving Trini, but found ourselves only in Cochabamba at the 24 hour mark.  The thought occurred that we could get a hostel and sleep for a night, but then we found a cheap ticket for a 10pm to La Paz (35 Bs each) putting us in the capital bright and early.  So we bought it and wandered across the street from the terminal to indulge in some of the best street food we have found in South America.  Good, cheap food always helps to cheer us up.

We woke at dawn with the lights of La Paz shinning below us. It was COLD, 0 degrees C read the sign, 5:30 am.  By now we were pretty much braindead as we sat in the terminal, feet going numb.  Eventually we decided that the best and cheapest route was to take the 8:30am bus to Copacabana (25 Bs each), which we did, where we ate a quick lunch then bought a ticket all the way to Arequipa (100 Bs each) on a bus that changed in Puno.  The ticket vendor proclaimed that it was eight hours to Arequipa putting us at our final destination at 9pm.  We had the fastest border crossing ever and but due to slow going and some more protests on the road, we didn’t find ourselves in Puno (where we had to change buses) until 4:30pm.  Getting into the second biggest city in Perú (Arequipa) at midnight didn’t sound like the best of plans, so we decided to end the marathon, switch our onward ticket, sleep in a bed, then continue at 8am.

So finally, the next day, we completed our trek to Arequipa at around 3pm.  That puts the total at 58 hours riding on a bus or waiting in bus terminals (after subtracting time spent in Puno).  This was the biggest bus marathon we have had or (hopefully) will ever have this entire trip.  Was it worth it?  Yes, because we are back in Perú which seems like a first world country after so long in Bolivia.  Yes, we enjoyed the fact that Bolivia is so underdeveloped, but after the extreme conditions of our time in the jungle, it was starting to get to us.  After such a crazy bus marathon, a few days rest in a beautiful and modern city were exactly what we needed.

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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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Santa Cruz: More Brazilian than Bolivian

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.

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