Back in Bolivia…someone turn the heat on, it’s bloody freezing

I’m not kidding. After three months lounging around warmer climates next the the ocean, returning to the Bolivian highlands in winter is a shock to the system. We arrived in Copacabana, Bolivia after four days of fairly relentless travel, tired but happy to be back. The sky was bright blue, the sun shining and the air temperature barely above zero. When the sun went down the temperature plunged and we had to put all our clothes on.

Don’t even get me started on the effect of suddenly being back at 3850 metres in altitude again. Let’s just say that viewed from the other side of a splitting head the following day, those two celebratory pisco sours were a serious mistake.

Rewinding a few days…we left Cartagena, Colombia at midnight and the temperature was hot and humid. An hour or so later we arrived in Bogota airport where we were going to have to spend an uncomfortable night waiting for the 5.30am flight to Lima. Its been a long time since I spent a night in an airport, I can’t recommend it.

Time to say goodbye to Colombia. Fruit seller, Cartagena, Colombia

Time to say goodbye to Colombia. Fruit seller, Cartagena, Colombia

Time to say goodbye to Colombia. The streets of Cartagena, Colombia

Time to say goodbye to Colombia. The streets of Cartagena, Colombia

At least our flight to Lima was on time. The second I was in my seat I was asleep. I woke three hours later just as we were descending over the magnificent Cordillera Blanca towards Lima airport. Lima was covered in dense fog, something that happens often, and you could barely see the tops of buildings.

Avianca, Colombia's national airline

Avianca, Colombia’s national airline

Negotiating Lima’s notorious rush hour traffic, and wishing I was anywhere else but Lima’s notorious rush hour traffic, we eventually arrived at our B&B. Luckily it had a room available there-and-then. We woke up around seven hours later, and if we hadn’t been hungry we’d have put in another seven hour sleep shift. What was left of the day was all the time we had in Lima – we were heading to the Bolivian border as quickly as possible.

As a resident of Bolivia you acquire a peculiar status…the Bolivian authorities don’t like you leaving the country. Perhaps they think you might have more fun in a neighbouring country and won’t come back…a sort of Shirley Valentine romance with an entire country. Whatever it is, they make you pay to leave Bolivia (tourists go free) and you can only leave for a period of three months in any calendar year. We had to be back in Bolivia before the 90 day limit.

Cruz del Sur bus, Peru

Cruz del Sur bus, Peru

Meanwhile in Lima, we had a bus to catch. The great thing about Peruvian buses is that for US$70 you get a seat that would put first class airplane seats to shame…they also serve meals and have video on demand! Despite that, I wasn’t looking forward to a 17 hour overnight bus from Lima to Arequipa. The bus was great, but 17 hours on a bus is probably a human rights violation. We arrived in Arequipa fairly bedraggled, but determined to push on.

A quick check of bus companies unearthed a Puno-bound bus leaving 15 minutes later. Just enough time to brush our teeth and grab some water and bananas. Seven hours later we arrived in Puno where we decided enough was enough. We took a taxi to a hotel and collapsed onto the bed. Sadly, we were up early the next morning to catch the bus to Copacabana. Time was ticking away and we wanted to be back in Bolivia a day before our deadline, just in case…

Back in Bolivia. Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, both icons of Bolivia

Back in Bolivia. Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, both icons of Bolivia

So here we are in Copacabana, only three weeks of our adventure left and soaking up some of that famous Lake Titicaca high-altitude atmosphere…that is, barely able to breath in an atmosphere of 3850 metres above sea level. It may be time to stock up on some llama wool items before we go anywhere else…it is bloody freezing here.

Street Life

One of the defining characteristics of life in Bolivia is the way it is lived to a large degree outside. I guess this is a trait of a hot climate and a legacy of Spanish cultural influence that has bequeathed every town in the country with at least one plaza where people congregate to meet friends, promenade or simply people watch.

The outdoor life goes further than this though. There are a multitude of street vendors selling everything from freshly squeezed orange juice, weavings, shoe shines, plastic bags full of drinks or food and repairs of just about every type imaginable; smooching students inhabit street corners and plaza benches; and campesinos wait on the pavement outside churches in the hope of charity.

This being Bolivia one of the more obvious outdoor activities is the regular ‘bloqueos’ or strikes. These occur with a frequency unheard of in any other country in the world as far as I can tell, and they bring thousands of people onto the streets – mainly because transport strikes are quite common.

Coming from a cold, wet, northern country I love the outside lifestyle of Bolivia, it certainly means there is rarely a shortage of things to distract and entertain…

Street vendor repairing shoes, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Street vendor repairing shoes, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Orange juice vendor takes a nap, Plaza 25 de Mayo, Sucre, Bolivia

Orange juice vendor takes a nap, Plaza 25 de Mayo, Sucre, Bolivia

Pigeon people, La Paz, Bolivia

Pigeon people, La Paz, Bolivia

A young girl selling jellies, Potosi, Bolivia

A young girl selling jellies, Potosi, Bolivia

Fashion shoot in the streets of Sucre, Bolivia

Fashion shoot in the streets of Sucre, Bolivia

Balloon seller, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Balloon seller, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Table removals, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Table removals, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Plaza Central, Cochabamba, Bolivia

Plaza Central, Cochabamba, Bolivia

Chorizo Festival, Sucre, Bolivia

Chorizo Festival, Sucre, Bolivia

Juice stalls in Sucre's Mercardo Central, Bolivia

Juice stalls in Sucre’s Mercardo Central, Bolivia

Balloon seller, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Balloon seller, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Protest march, Sucre, Bolivia

Protest march, Sucre, Bolivia

Media crowd around a strike organiser, Sucre, Bolivia

Media crowd around a strike organiser, Sucre, Bolivia

Toys for sale, Potosi, Bolivia

Toys for sale, Potosi, Bolivia

The many countries that are Bolivia

“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).

Cochabamba’s Cristo de la Concordia – the world’s largest Jesus statue, that’s right Rio, the largest!

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.

Pink river dolphins en route to San Ignacio de Moxos

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.

Participants in San Ignacio’s fiesta

Fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos

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.

Hat-mounted fireworks are not the way forward for health and safety

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.

Sunset on the Rio Mamore

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.

Up close and personal with the Andean Condor

The mysterious 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…