Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Race Across Bolivia

Ross, Jace and I walked across the border from Brazil to Bolivia with relative ease. Puerto Quijarro was a nothing town – dirty, dusty, smelly – just a mandatory stop on the way to somewhere better for travellers like us.

We caught the infamous “Death Train” that night and arrived alive, though bone-rattled, in Santa Cruz the following morning. Here Ross left us to go into town while we weighed up our options for the onward journey to Cochabamba – do we wait half a day and explore Santa Cruz, taking a night bus? In a snap decision, we jumped on a bus scheduled to leave at 9.30am to make it to Cochabamba by 5pm the same day.

Of course the bus didn’t leave till close to 10.30 and took nearly 10 hours, but Jace and I enjoyed the scenery and the vendors jumping on and off selling salteñas (like empanadas), drinks, bags of mandarins, meat skewers, sweets and nuts. Everything was so cheap, especially after expensive Brazil. We were also happy to take it slow on the roads after seeing this head-on collision between a bus and a truck. Los Bolivianos manejan cómo locos. (The Bolivians drive like crazy people.)

We arrived in Cochabamba to the welcoming arms of the Dibos family. “Come in! Are you hungry? Here’s your room. Do you want a shower? Have some dinner.” Just what we needed after 3 days of near-constant travel.

Our time in Cochabamba was lovely – some R&R in civilisation after the Pantanal – but all too short. We spent a lot of our time eating and talking with the Dibos’. Piti and Grace’s daughter, Olivia, and her two children, Santiago and Diana, had arrived the same day as us from Santa Cruz (they flew, however), so the house was full of people and, of course, the dogs. Piti kindly drove us around during the day to see the Christo (taller than Rio de Janiero’s by about 80cm) and search for a new backpack for me. At night, we went out with Ignacio to play pool, drink and sample the local street food, trancopechos (“chest-blockers”), or stayed in and played Clue with Diana.

The Dibos Family (and Alix)

Agapito, a rare Andean hairless dog

Cochabamba, seen from the Christo

After only 3 days, it was time to move on, so we jumped on another bus, this time headed to Oruro, only 4 hours away, and then took a night bus to Uyuni. You can read about that (mis)adventure in Jace’s previous post.

Uyuni is the gateway to the Salar, a massive salt flat surrounded by volcanoes that is larger than Belgium and can be seen clearly from space. It is one of Bolivia’s huge draw-cards for tourists from all over the world and there are dozens of companies offering 1- to 4-day tours into the Salar and on to the Altiplano. After visiting about 6 of these companies, Jace and I went with Red Planet, conveniently located next to our hotel and recommended by a fellow traveller. We met our guide, Oscar, before deciding and his easy manner and good English, as well as his honest “I can’t promise that we will see flamingoes in the lakes. I only saw five on the last trip” had us sure that this was the right tour to be on.

South America is incredibly small when you’re a tourist. We ran into Kyle from the Pantanal tour on the street in Uyuni (we also met him outside the bus station in La Paz 5 days later) and decided to go together to the highly recommended Minute Man Pizza for dinner. Of course, we ran into Chris and MC, also from the Pantanal, at the pizza place that night, and enjoyed sharing tales about our travels, including the (not so) mysterious quitting of the kitchen girl the day after our group left the Pantanal because she was “unhappy.” Methinks the thief escaped unaccused.

Our 3-day tour of the Salar left the next morning. There were two other couples in our group: Jan and Mark from the UK and, and Danka and Tomas from Poland; both couples were coming to the end of year-long journeys around the world. It was great to be on a tour with like-minded individuals and we really enjoyed their company, especially over cards and wine on our second night, when we taught them how to play a card game named Golf and were beaten by the Brits.

Mark, Jan, Alix, Jace, Danka and Tomas

The tour itself was amazing. The landscapes of the Salar and the Altiplano are harsh and unforgiving. Our first day was spent driving across the Salar itself, where we saw how the locals mined for salt, visited a hotel made from salt, climbed a cactus-covered island, and finally took some funny photos that played with perspective. It was cold, dry and stunning.

Oscar (with Tomas and Danka)

At the train cemetery on the edge of the Salar

Mining the salt

Playing cards in the salt hotel

On Incahuasi island


Alix gives Jace the boot

The second day we climbed higher, away from the Salar and into the desert. Here the volcanoes dominated the landscape, coloured red, green, yellow and white from the minerals in the soil – iron, copper, sulphur and lithium. The vegetation was limited to Andean grass, green moss and a small bush which also contained minerals drawn from the soil and apparently burned very well because of them. Stopping beside Laguna Cañapa for lunch, there was one lone flamingo, grey from lack of shrimp, but still sticking around despite the cold. Farther on, we saw the famous arbol de piedra (stone tree), surrounded by rock outcrops in even stranger shapes, and continued on to the Laguna Colorada, where we were happy to see a number of pink flamingoes. That night we slept 4,600m above sea level, near the lagoon.

One of the many volcanoes, this one was hit by a meteorite

Giant green moss

Grey flamingo

The arbol de piedra

One of many large rock outcrops

Laguna Colorada

Pink flamingo

First stop on the third day took us to the Sol de Mañana Geyser. The smell of sulphur was overpowering as we wandered between the treacherous-looking pools of bubbling mud. One slip and the gases and heat would probably kill you even before you before you got sucked under. Next stop was a thermal spring where only Danka braved the cold air to immerse herself fully in the warm waters; the rest of us settled for bathing our frozen feet. Last stop before the Chilean border was Laguna Verde, which seemed more white than green due to the borax (potassium chloride) that sat all around it. No flamingoes here; the water is highly toxic. We dropped Jan and Mark at the border and then drove back to Uyuni via the Laguna Colorada again and the striking Valle de Rocas. It had been a fantastic journey through alien landscapes.

Jace jumps through a geyser

Bubbling mud

Hot, steamy and smelly

Jace warms his feet

Laguna Verde with its edge of borax

Unreal rock formation

The bus ride to La Paz was blessedly uneventful, thanks in part to a couple of sleeping pills popped at the beginning of the trip. La Paz was a great place to relax and regroup after the freezing south. Despite being the world’s highest capital city, it has a beautiful climate – sunny and relatively warm (until the sun goes down). We enjoyed walking around, buying a few important items, like a new pack for me, and watching the World Cup at various popular backpacker haunts around town. We visited a couple of museums, seeing Inca treasures in gold and silver and learning a bit of the history of Bolivian independence, as well as the Coca Museum for a biased but comprehensive history of the sacred plant and how the West (read US) has turned it around. Interestingly, Coca-Cola apparently still uses coca, but just the leaves for flavour.

Eventually, it was time to move on to Cusco and our impending Inca Trail trek. We would be well acclimatised after 2 weeks “at altitude”.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Oruro to Uyuni

At the dusty bus terminal at Oruro, Bolivia, the bus company touts sing their destinations to passersby, and chorus to each other. “Uyuni, Uyuni” calls an alto on the left side of the bus station. An older baritone on the right side sings back; “Cochabamba, Uyuni” as if to say “we go more places than they do.” They call back and forth every few minutes.

It is 8.30pm, Sunday 6th June and Alix and I have arrived at the bus terminal from Cochabamba, some 5 hours north of Oruro by bus. We have eaten a simple dinner at a roadside restaurant and purchased two tickets on the 9pm Trans Azul service south to Uyuni, due to arrive at 7am the next morning. The Trans Azul is the local traffic bus, not a tourist service, so the seats are bound to be narrow and probably don’t recline. On the upside, the tickets are cheap, only 60 Bolivianos for two tickets, i.e. ten dollars in Australian money. We want to spend more and get the big reclining seats they have on the ‘Cama’ premium buses, but there is no Cama bus until tomorrow and we don’t fancy a spending a night in grungy Oruro, so we load our backpacks onto the Trans Azul bus and await departure.

9pm and the bus is departing, we interpret this as a positive sign because punctuality is not typical for Bolivian buses. The bus is two- thirds full, there are a few spare seats remaining and we are the only gringos on the bus. There is no TV on this bus, unlike the more expensive buses they will not screen a movie. With no light to read by there is nothing to do but to try to get some sleep.

11pm. The road on the way to Oruro is bumpy and I am pretending to sleep, dozing occasionally but mostly just sitting and trying to relax. There are no lights anywhere but three strips of reflectors fade into the distance on the road ahead, indicating the far right side of the road, the centre division, and the far left side, splitting the road into two lanes. Shadows dance across the bus cabin in the darkness, caused by the headlights of the traffic passing by on the way to Oruro. Our bus drifts to the left and I open my eyes. I can dimly make out a hulking black shape up ahead. Headlights dazzle into the cabin and the bus lurches suddenly to the right. A set of headlights flashes very close by our left hand side and the high whine of a long blast on a car horn sails by our ears. Alix wakes up and grips my arm. Our bus lurches to the left again and the bus headlights illuminate the hulking shape of an abandoned bus in the middle of the right hand lane in which we were travelling. We narrowly pass the abandoned bus on the left lane without slowing and reoccupy the right lane before any more oncoming traffic comes into view. Alix and I are both suddenly wide awake. “I thought we were going over for sure” Alix says. I had wondered if we would roll, too.

12 midnight. The road is even darker now as the road changes from paved to dirt. There are neither lights nor reflectors on the road now and it has narrowed to one and a half lanes, enough for two vehicles to pass each other provided one or both vehicles drive with their outside wheels on the dirt verge. The ride is even bumpier and neither of us hold out any hope for any real sleep on this bus ride any more, the shaking is too intense. The cabin is heated but it is still quite cool as the outside temperature drops to below freezing.

3.50am. The Trans Azul bus we are travelling in collides head on with a black 4WD coming the from the other direction. There is a loud bang and the bus comes to a sudden halt. My knees connect painfully with the back of the seat in front of me and a child begins to cry. The cabin light comes on and I take out my earplugs and begin to put away my inflatable travel pillow and look around. Other bus passengers have superficial injuries . The older woman in front of us has hit her face somehow and is holding a tissue to her bloody nose. The door opens and one of the two bus drivers emerges. He is wearing work gloves and overalls and stuffed in his left cheek is a wad of coca leaves the size of a golf ball. He explains that we have hit something on the road. A woman flexes her palms to the ceiling and yells at him in Spanish. “¿Es tomado?” Are you drunk?

We file off the bus to have a look at the situation. Both vehicles have been disabled. The front left headlight and the bumper of the bus has been smashed and the left front of the bus has caved in slightly. The 4WD has been written off and the engine is a mass of twisted metal. The windscreen has caved in and the metal upright between the windshield and the left front window has collapsed inwards, pinning the driver by his chest to his seat. The driver is unconscious and has apparent head injuries from the blood trickling down his face. There are no other people in the 4WD.

3.55am. The crew of the bus attempt to free the trapped driver, removing the windshield with gloved hands and attempting to remove metal from the 4WD with a crowbar. The driver is swearing in Spanish. It is too cold outside so most passengers go back into the bus cabin. There is no response from the driver of the 4WD, his head lolls forward in his seat. There is no fulcrum from which to safely use the crowbar to lever away the metal pinning the driver to his seat.

4.00am. Alix talks to one of the bus drivers in Spanish, explaining that if the driver has spinal injuries, moving him will make them worse. The driver dismisses her with a wave. Spinal injuries or not, the cold will soon kill him if he is left outside. Alix and I take our backpacks from the bus luggage store. I offer the driver the pair of pliers on my leatherman tool, an irrelevant gesture, if the crowbar can do nothing, neither can the pliers. A second bus pulls up behind our bus from the Oruro direction. The collision has blocked the road. Bus drivers talk to each other and the second bus pulls over to the left hand side of the road. There is a sprinkling of lights up ahead on the road, the small town of Uyuni is only about 30 minutes drive to the south. Mobile phone calls are attempted but there is no mobile reception.

4.10am. Passengers from the first bus are moved with their luggage from the first bus to the second. Drivers from both buses and a couple of other men are walking around the 4WD, occasionally trying to pry metal loose with their hands, failing, swearing, talking, trying again. A white 4WD arrives travelling south to north, stops momentarily, drives off road and continues on its way. A white station wagon arrives from the same direction. The driver stops and speaks to one of the bus drivers for several seconds, turns around and drives back in the direction of Uyuni. The second bus is now crammed with passengers from both buses and there is standing room only, but it is warm inside. The trapped 4WD driver lapses into consciousness, wails loudly, and falls silent again.

4.45am. A semi-trailer arrives travelling north to south and pulls up alongside the crashed bus. The semi-trailer crew join the other drivers in the rescue effort. A rope is tied to the metal upright that is pinning the trapped driver, doubled through, and tied to the bullbar on the semi-trailer. The semi-trailer reverses slowly and the rope is pulled taut then snaps, sliced apart on the twisted metal of the wrecked 4WD. The trapped driver wails again.

4.54am. A second attempt at the rope-pull successfully bends the metal upright away from the trapped driver enough to free him. Using a blanket as a stretcher, three men carry the patient to the second bus where he is put down on the floor of the bus between the rows of seats.

5.03am. The patient is unconscious and bleeding from the head but breathing evenly. He is a young bloke, probably 24 or 25 years of age and a handsome looking fellow despite the blood on his face and the windscreen glass covering his clothes. His head is wrapped in the blanket he was stretchered in, it is moved to free his face to ensure his mouth is clear. His skin is too dark to tell if his lips are blue but his chest is rising and falling. I grab a blanket to throw over him to keep him warm and people look at me oddly. “Mucho freo,” I say by way of explanation- very cold. I receive a few nods of comprehension. The cabin light is switched off and the bus departs in darkness for Uyuni.

5.07am. With a head torch on her head for illumination Alix applies first aid to the patient, holding his head between her hands to stop it lolling with the movement of the bus and monitoring his breathing and circulation. He is cold but breathing and occasionally snoring.

5.28am. The bus arrives at Uyuni hospital where the patient is blanket-stretchered inside. The man whose blanket I gave to the patient has just noticed that it belongs to him. He frowns and says something irritable in Spanish.

5.45am. The bus arrives at the bus terminal, we collect our luggage, hail a taxi and check into our hotel. There is an open fire in the foyer. One other passenger from our bus is also checking in. I rub my hands together and say “Mucho freo.” He responds “Si, Mucho freo.”

6.00am. We unlock our room and dump our stuff inside. We booked a double room, but this room is a twin single. Alix looks at me and says “I need to wash my gloves. They smell of blood.” I turn out the light, we curl up very close together into a single bed and fall instantly to sleep.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Polefishing for Pantanal Piranhas

We met Al Macedo, senior guide for Ecological Expeditions Pantanal Trekking company at the bus station at Campo Grande in south western Brazil. He looked kind of windswept, he moved very quickly and talked even quicker. He was here to drive us to the hostel where we would kill some time in a one-night holding pattern until our tour began the next day.

At the hostel, a clean and pleasant place with wildlife murals on the walls, we met a couple of the comrades we were to spend 4 nights in a wetlands campsite with; a tall, lean Irish bloke named Ross and a fresh-faced French girl, Axelle.

Al gave us a brief tour introduction in his office; 4 days in the Pantanal with everything included - all meals, accommodation, 2 hikes, a 4WD safari and inner tubing down the river. The horse riding was off the itinerary; he made some excuse about the wetland water levels that didn’t make much sense, but he sounded like he knew what he was talking about, generally speaking. We were in for an action packed few days regardless.

The next morning we met the rest of our group- a couple of blondes from Wisconsin, Theresa and Emily, who had gotten off a plane that morning and were heading straight into the wetlands. The journey began when the six of us boarded a minibus, headed by road to the transfer point where we would continue by 4WD on dirt roads into the wetlands. Several hours passed. We had been told we would stop for lunch but we never did. We did stop for the driver to pick up some cases of beer at one point, but never for any lunch, which seemed immensely unfair.

On the way into camp we already began to spot wildlife- one of the girls spotted a capybara, someone else glimpsed a caiman lurking in a river as we crossed it.

As the sun was setting we arrived at the campsite where we were greeted by a wiry, dark skinned bloke with dodgy tattoos and a few scrappy looking scars. An original Pantanal man, Max had been guiding for over 12 years. In the next few days Max’ keen eyes were to spot for us an abundance of wildlife and he would share with us his encyclopaedic knowledge of the birds and animals there. In addition, he would drive a truck, pilot a boat, speak several languages and keep us safe in case of danger. He also organised for us to go on the morning of horse riding that Al had said was off the activity list. Not bad for scruffy-looking bush bloke.

However Max proved himself over the next few days, at this point in time we had just met each other and the relationship had an awkward beginning. The six of us, Alix, Ross, Axelle, Theresa, Emily and myself had just been in transit for 7 hours without being offered any food or water. Everyone was hungry, thirsty, tired and pretty edgy.

I decided to take up the issue on behalf of everyone, so Max and I went to see the manager, who turned out to be the bloke who had driven the 4WD into camp and stopped to buy the beer. By now it was very close to dinner time in camp, so obtaining food and water was not really the issue. The issue was that Al had sold us the tour on the understanding that all meals were included. When we boarded the minibus we were told we would be stopping for lunch, but we never did. I wondered what else Al had told us that might not come true.

Once we were in the manager’s office I decided to take an Aussie approach to the situation. “I can’t really speak for the others, but I reckon a couple of free drinks each should fix it, and we’ll forget it ever happened.” I said.

The manager was a fat, broad-shouldered bloke with a black moustache. His office desk was littered importantly with papers and radio cables and he sat at it with the air of a chieftain. Max translated my suggestion into Portugeuse with some gestures of supplication but the manager was not impressed. First I was told that there were no drinks. That wasn’t going to work, because I had seen him load his beer onto the truck. Next he flatly refused, he had paid for the beer with his own money and intended to sell it. I stared at his eyeballs and asked him if he had a better idea. He reckoned some fruit and crackers should be adequate compensation for 7 hours with no lunch but I didn’t agree and told him so.

Because we had reached an impasse it was time for a threatening physical display, so the manager stood up, puffed his chest out and pointed at the door. The office was very small and the space was taken up almost entirely by the desk, the manager’s beer fridge, and the manager himself. “Vamos,” he said. Literally, “We go” in Spanish but he made it sound a lot like, “Get out.”

I stared at the manager’s eyeballs again, smiled and told him I was going to walk out with 12 cans of beer and if he had an issue with it his boss could pay him back for them. Max laughed in amazement and the manager looked confused and astonished, but agreed to let me talk to his boss on the phone. His boss tried a few different excuses and emotions over the phone, but five minutes or so later everyone was fed up with the clearly insane Australian and I walked out with the cans of beer, hoping Max would get over it and the rest of the tour would go smoothly.

Jace with a hard-earned beer

While the first day was probably best forgotten, the next few days were an adventure worth remembering. While almost everyone has heard of the Amazon, not so many have heard of the Pantanal. The wildlife is somewhat similar in both locations, but where the Amazon is a dense jungle, with visibility limited to a few metres in places, the Pantanal is an open wetland and animals can be spotted from considerable distances away. I’m tempted to post a laundry list of animals that we saw, or upload a hundred photographs, but I doubt it would approximate the experience. Instead I’ll just use the word ‘lots’ to describe how many there were. This was especially true for the caimans. There are more than 10 million of them here.


Everyone had a different favourite animal. For Ross it was the yellow and black Anaconda. For Axelle, it was the critically endangered Hyacinth Macaw. Theresa’s favourite was one of the apex predators of the wetlands, the Giant River Otter, a surprisingly large and territorial carnivore with teeth the size of a puma’s. Emily favoured the Coati for its raccoon-like cuteness, and Alix’ favourites were the Howler Monkeys that jumped and hooted in the trees above us.


Hyacinth Macaw

Giant River Otter


Howler Monkey

We first spotted my favourite animal on the second day in the wetlands as we motored down river. Remarkably agile flyers, Ringed Kingfishers weaved effortlessly through the roots and branches of trees on the riverbanks, sometimes appearing to move horizontally in midflight to avoid collisions.

Ringed Kingfisher

While the Ringed Kingfisher was my favourite animal to look at, I had another favourite as well but for a different reason. Wading into the freshwater lakes with bamboo pole fishing rods, Max and another guide, Alex, showed us how to fish for Piranhas. Alix was a natural, she hooked 6 of them within about an hour before the mosquitoes and the fading light convinced us to head for home. Later we fried them and ate them with dinner. Washed down with cachaça and juice, I ate about a dozen of them, adding some more tasty fried fatness to my generously increasing waistline.

Alix catches her first of six piranhas

Jace shows the piranha's sharp little teeth

Jace finishes a plate of piranhas

Leaving the Pantanal behind, my impression is that the visit was well worthwhile. The wildlife spotting was superb. Our guide was dedicated and professional. I finally got around to riding a horse, which I had never done before. I couldn’t have hoped for better company either, our group had great fun together and I am thankful to have met some great new friends.

However, I cannot reflect upon the experience without a necessary word of warning to anyone who might consider touring with Ecological Expeditions. After the final morning of the tour when all the campsite guests were out horse riding we packed up our belongings to prepare for the return journey out of the Pantanal. While packing our gear away, we discovered that some items had gone missing from Alix’ backpack. Nothing of too much consequence; a few little toy koala’s we had brought as gifts for children, a baseball cap and a bottle of perfume Alix had received as a gift from her aunt. Later we learnt that some of Emily’s possessions had gone missing too, undergarments this time, building the unmistakeable picture of a female thief in the campsite.

As we were leaving we mentioned the theft to Max but he didn’t seem too interested, and the manager had already demonstrated his approach to dealing with customer issues and complaints. Besides, we were leaving in a few minutes, so the theft had been cunningly timed.

As long as Ecological Expeditions continue to over-promise and then under-deliver they will continue to receive bad reviews. As long as, through poor management or bad attitude, they permit problems to occur without anyone taking responsibility for their resolution, they will fail to properly deliver what should be an unforgettable highlight of any person’s trip to Brazil.