“We’re no longer in Sucre, Toto”, was the first thought that went through my head as our plane touched down in Cochabamba at the start of a three week ‘holiday’ into the lowlands of Bolivia (of which, much more in later posts).
The reason for this trip was to reach the tiny Amazonian village of San Ignacio de Moxos to take part in its rightly famous Fiesta del Santo Patrono de Moxos. It has a reputation as the biggest party in the Bolivian Amazon, and judging by the state of my liver afterwards its reputation is well deserved.
First though was Cochabamba. Only a short plane hop from Sucre, and sitting at an altitude similar to that of Sucre, Cochabamba feels more tropical, the air smells different, the temperature is hotter, humidity sits heavy and the whole city has a different, and faster-paced, vibe to anything I’ve encountered in Bolivia so far.
Cochabamba lies in a valley floor ringed by mountains that climb to well over 5000m and is one of the most agriculturally rich areas in the whole country, not quite the bread basket, but the fruit and vegetable basket for sure. For tourists there is little, verging on nothing, to do; compensating for that is some of the most diverse and delicious food in the country – something we did our utmost to explore in the two days we had in Cochabamba before heading to Trinidad, gateway to the Bolivian Amazon.
An essential diversion in Cochabamba is a visit to the hilltop that hosts the world’s tallest statue of Christ: the Cristo de la Concordia. Despite having a location that couldn’t even start to compete with Rio, the Cristo de la Cochabamba stands a whole 44cm higher – Rio may have the next Olympics but it still won’t have the tallest Christ statue. Cochabamba 1 Rio 0.
After a pleasant couple of days in Cochabamba, we jumped on a plane to Trinidad, capital of Bolivia’s Beni department which contains the bulk of Bolivia’s Amazon Basin. If Cochabamba had come as a surprise, Trinidad was a whole different country – as far from the high Altiplano and Andean Bolivia as it is possible to get, with heat, humidity and mosquitoes to match. Even the people look different in Trinidad, taller and much, much more European looking. Spend an afternoon sitting in a cafe on Trinidad’s main plaza and you’ll spot people who should rightly be living in Scandinavia – and that’s not even including our dungaree wearing friends the Menonnites (why dungarees?).
After a hot and insect heavy night in Trinidad, we took the road to San Ignacio de Moxos, and the Fiesta to end all Fiestas. On the way we saw a bewildering array of wildlife, right by the side of the road – including river dolphins.
Normally I’d be in raptures at the site of a river dolphin (and I was), but the wildlife had a difficult time competing with the human life of the fiesta.
Perhaps the most dramatic, and fun, part of the fiesta were the fireworks attached to the hats of participants. They account for the burns I suffered and the holes I now have in most of my clothes.
After four days of partying in San Ignacio de Moxos (thank you Cuba Libre for the worst hangover I’ve had in years), we decided to slow the pace a little and take a slow boat up the Rio Ibare and then the Rio Mamore, two large Amazonian rivers that eventually flow all the way to the Brazilian border and beyond. We sailed on the very comfortable Reina de Enin, which offered daily excursions into the surrounding forest, down small rivers to beautiful lagoons, fishing trips, horse riding and swimming in Amazon rivers.
After our Amazonian adventure, and an even more exciting night bus from Trinidad to Santa Cruz, we holed up in one of Bolivia’s nicest hotels – the Hotel Casa Patio (www.casapatio-hotelboutique.com) – and endured more fine dining in Bolivia’s second city, including what must be Bolivia’s (Latin America’s?) finest Japanese food. This was followed by a couple of days in the delightfully laid back village of Samaipata, set amidst rolling wooded hills and the base for close up encounters with Andean Condors and the pre-Incan site of El Fuerte.
After three weeks away it’s nice to return to the pleasant climate and colonial charm of Sucre, eyes wide open to a whole new Bolivia that needs further exploration at some point – that point being when I’ve got some 100% DEET based anti-mosquito repellent, eighteen bites on one arm in one night is too much!
More photos and detail of our travels coming soon…