Nineteenth century engineering en route to the Auld Grey Town

The Lancaster Canal is today a gentle reminder of the Industrial Revolution that erupted in Britain between the 1780s and 1830s, and which changed the landscape of this island forever.

Work on the canal started in 1794 and wasn’t completed until 1826, by which time the canal stretched from Preston in Lancashire to Kendal in Cumbria. Later still the canal was extended to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, connecting Kendal, and all-points south, with the giant industrial cities of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and one of the world’s busiest ports at Liverpool. Although by this time the death-knell of the canal had been sounded by the construction of the first intercity railway in 1830.

The Lancaster Canal, Cumbria, England

The Lancaster Canal, Cumbria, England

As you walk its historic towpath today, passing through rolling countryside on the way to Kendal, its hard to imagine that this magnificent engineering feat was brought about by the rise of the industrial cities of Northern England. My destination, Kendal, is known as the Auld Grey Town thanks to its buildings being constructed from limestone – although it could equally refer to the terrible weather – was the most northerly point of the canal.

The Lancaster Canal, Cumbria, England

The Lancaster Canal, Cumbria, England

Kendal was a centre of cloth manufacture, as well as shoe and tobacco production, but the canal also linked several gunpowder works to the outside world. The gunpowder works in this part of the country were for mining rather than military use, and were still in existence in the 1930s. Kendal also provided the reason for the Lancaster Canal to remain commercially viable – until 1944 coal was delivered to Kendal Gas Works on the canal.

When I reached the small hamlet of Crooklands, I diverted off the canal to visit the Church of St. Partick which sits in splendid isolation on top of a hill and can be seen from miles away. Its a picturesque spot with commanding views (albeit of the M6 to the south), and is the final resting place of several generations of my family.

St. Patrick's Church, Crooklands, Cumbria, England

St. Patrick’s Church, Crooklands, Cumbria, England

Incomplete memory, St. Patrick's Church cemetery, Crooklands, Cumbria, England

Incomplete memory, St. Patrick’s Church cemetery, Crooklands, Cumbria, England

St. Patrick's Church cemetery, Crooklands, Cumbria, England

St. Patrick’s Church cemetery, Crooklands, Cumbria, England

St. Patrick's Church cemetery, Crooklands, Cumbria, England

St. Patrick’s Church cemetery, Crooklands, Cumbria, England

St. Patrick's Church cemetery, Crooklands, Cumbria, England

St. Patrick’s Church cemetery, Crooklands, Cumbria, England

Back on the canal again I headed north towards Kendal. The construction of this canal was special, it is one of Britain’s few ‘contour canals’. The canal follows the natural line of the landscape and consequently has very few locks going up and down hills. It means the canal is flat, making for easy walking. You can see contour construction in operation as you walk the route, although, sadly, the final section of the canal has been drained because of leakage.

What it lacks in locks is made up for by a tunnel at the village of Hincaster: at 378 yards its the longest tunnel on the Lancaster Canal. Like the rest of this northern section of the canal, the tunnel was opened in 1819 at the height of the Industrial Revolution.

Hincaster Tunnel, Lancaster Canal, Cumbria, England

Hincaster Tunnel, Lancaster Canal, Cumbria, England

Hincaster Tunnel, Lancaster Canal, Cumbria, England

Hincaster Tunnel, Lancaster Canal, Cumbria, England

Hincaster Tunnel, Lancaster Canal, Cumbria, England

Hincaster Tunnel, Lancaster Canal, Cumbria, England

There isn’t a towpath through the tunnel – the boats were either punted through or men would lay on their backs on the roof of the boat and ‘walk’ it through. There is a route over the top of the tunnel which was used by the horses which normally towed the boats. Walking over it today you also pass under the west coast railway line – these two forms of transport follow the same route.

After passing over the tunnel its possible to divert through a lovely country park, sliced in two by the River Kent on its way to the Irish Sea. Levens Park was completed in 1710 and is part of Levens Hall. It has a wonderful avenue of oak trees, many dating back to this period and on a good day you’ll spot deer and goats with huge horns in the park, although I didn’t see a single one. Levens Hall dates from the mid-fourteenth century, but much of the present building is from the reign of Elisabeth I.

A lost glove made into an offensive gesture, Levens Park, Cumbria, England

A lost glove made into an offensive gesture, Levens Park, Cumbria, England

A lost mitten can't make an offensive gesture, Levens Park, Cumbria, England

A lost mitten can’t make an offensive gesture, Levens Park, Cumbria, England

Avenue of ancient oaks, Levens Park, Cumbria, England

Avenue of ancient oaks, Levens Park, Cumbria, England

Levens Hall, Cumbria, England

Levens Hall, Cumbria, England

Levens Park, Cumbria, England

Levens Park, Cumbria, England

Once through Levens Park you can either rejoin the route of the canal or take a slightly longer route to Kendal which follows the River Kent. The weather was nice so I chose to do the latter.

Bridge over the River Kent, Cumbria, England

Bridge over the River Kent, Cumbria, England

On the banks of the River Kent, Cumbria, England

On the banks of the River Kent, Cumbria, England

Fungi on the River Kent, Cumbria, England

Fungi on the River Kent, Cumbria, England

Bridge over the River Kent, Cumbria, England

Bridge over the River Kent, Cumbria, England

After nearly five hours of walking I finally reached Kendal to be greeted by its Coat of Arms next to Nether Bridge, which dates back to the fourteenth century. The three span bridge was completed in 1772 and widened in 1908, but still retains the 1772 elements. More on the Auld Grey Town soon…

Nether Bridge, Kendal, Cumbria, England

Nether Bridge, Kendal, Cumbria, England

Kendal Town Coat-of-Arms, Cumbria, England

Kendal Town Coat-of-Arms, Cumbria, England

Goodbye Bolivia, so long and thanks for all the Aranjuez

So this is it, my last Bolivian blog. We’ve been in Bolivia or travelling around South and Central America for the last fourteen months…apparently all good things do come to an end, even if you don’t want them to. It has been an amazing year and I’m grateful we’ve had the opportunity to spend time in such a wonderful country and travel through this incredible region.

We’re very sad to be leaving warm and welcoming Bolivia, leaving our new friendships and new associations behind, for the time being; but we have to return to London. Dreary old London. It will be lovely to see our families and friends again, but that doesn’t lesson the sadness we feel…even though we know we’ll be back one day.

Our hearts will remain in Latin America even if our minds have to return to reality in London…

A heart in the Atacama Desert, Chile

A heart in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Viva La Paz, countdown to departure

La Paz is a city like no other. Snow-capped mountains form a surreal backdrop to the city, while gravity-defying houses tumble down the side of the crater in a way that is both beautiful and terrifying. In the bottom of the crater the city sprawls north and south down roads clogged with fume-belching, horn-blaring buses and taxis, the drivers of which have absolutely no respect for pedestrians or other vehicles. Its a miracle there aren’t more fatalities.

Bolivian coat of arms, Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Bolivian coat of arms, Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

Houses and Illimani at sunset, La Paz, Bolivia

Houses and Illimani at sunset, La Paz, Bolivia

The streets are filled with bowler hatted chollas, their huge skirts swishing as they walk; coca leaf-chewing campesinos rub shoulders with suited businesspeople; tattooed and pierced young people fill restaurants to eat traditional food; shoeshine boys inquire about polishing your Habanas; and the street markets sell everything from a hundred types of potato to dried llama fetuses and magical powders that make people fall in love with you.

A woman walks past street art, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman walks past street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Bowler-hatted Chollas in La Paz, Bolivia

Bowler-hatted Chollas in La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz street scene, Bolivia

La Paz street scene, Bolivia

La Paz street art, Bolivia

La Paz street art, Bolivia

All of this frenetic activity takes place at the breathless altitude of 3600m. In winter it is bitterly cold once the sun disappears, in summer it rains so hard that almost every year houses and roads are washed away – often with the loss of life. There is great poverty, especially in El Alto, and extravagant wealth on display almost everywhere you look. My first few days in the city left me feeling disoriented.

Posing for a photograph with pigeons in Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Posing for a photograph with pigeons in Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman sits outside a church in Plaza San Pedro, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman sits outside a church in Plaza San Pedro, La Paz, Bolivia

X-ray llama, La Paz, Bolivia

X-ray llama, La Paz, Bolivia

Campesino women with children, La Paz, Bolivia

Campesino women with children, La Paz, Bolivia

Electrical cables, La Paz, Bolivia

Electrical cables, La Paz, Bolivia

Alcohol and sex sell, La Paz, Bolivia

Alcohol and sex sell, La Paz, Bolivia

The more time I’ve spent here though, the more I have grown to love the city and its people. It is a place that slowly gains your affection, and although we chose to live in more genteel Sucre, it is La Paz that, to me, encompasses and defines all of Bolivia. It is also a city where you don’t have to look far for a photo opportunity. I spent a couple of days just wandering the streets in-between packing our bags in preparation for our return to London.

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Posters, La Paz, Bolivia

Posters, La Paz, Bolivia

A bar advertising John Lennon's "Let it beer", La Paz, Bolivia

A bar advertising John Lennon’s “Let it beer”, La Paz, Bolivia

Street advertising, La Paz, Bolivia

Street advertising, La Paz, Bolivia

Chollas and street food, La Paz, Bolivia

Chollas and street food, La Paz, Bolivia

The other great thing about La Paz is that you can walk around and suddenly find yourself embroiled in a local fiesta. Several times we came across bands and costumed performers playing and parading just in their own barrios. These events are frequently accompanied by heavy drinking; there was one man in the fiesta below who, despite the best efforts of his family to sober him up, was so drunk he could barely walk.

They like to party in La Paz…viva Bolivia.

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

The drunkest man in the parade…moments after this he just collapsed and the parade went on without him.

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Leaving the Amazon…time for drinks by the pool

The Amazon is an amazing place, but lets face it…biting insects and not a single margarita in sight. There is only so much time you can spend in a place under those circumstances. We headed back to Rurrenabaque knowing that our time in Bolivia would soon come to an abrupt end. Within the week we’d be on an American Airlines flight that would, via Miami, return us to London and a world of rain and austerity. Not a pleasant thought.

Meanwhile, back in London...

Meanwhile, back in London…

Luckily, we had a couple of days in Rurrenabaque to hunt out a swimming pool, sun loungers and a few cold beers. Even luckier, we’d met Jo and Neil in the Amazon…two kindred spirits from Australia willing to share a cold beer with us. We’d see out our last few days in good company and good style, including an amazing meal at Gustu (the restaurant in La Paz set up by the chef from the world’s best restaurant, Noma).

We still had to get out of the Amazon though. That meant another couple of hours motoring down the Tuichi and Beni rivers back to Rurrenabaque. Under deep blue skies we navigated through rapids, past more amazing Amazonian landscapes, spotting water birds and a group of the reddest howler monkeys I’ve ever seen.

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and people, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and people, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Clothes drying, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Clothes drying, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Crane, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Crane, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and washing, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and washing, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Back in Rurrenabaque, we quickly slipped into the tropical mindset and collapsed by the pool, with occasional ventures to the bar. Rurrenabaque is a pleasant place to spend some time, everything seems to take place in slow motion and time happily slides past you, imitating the brown waters of the Rio Beni flowing nearby.

Pool and loungers, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Pool and loungers, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Sunset, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, into the Amazon rainforest (part 2)

During the four days we spent in the Amazon rainforest we walked through the forest once or twice each day. It is a humid place and for long periods of time you don’t see much other than the flora all around, but it is absolutely fascinating to be inside the forest itself.

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

One of the great pleasures of being there is just to stand still and listen. The sound of the forest is captivating, there is little wind to obscure the bird calls, the sound of insects and occasionally the noise of the larger inhabitants of the forest. One day we heard, and smelled, a large group of peccaries moving through the forest thirty meters away. We never saw them but the noise was tremendous – they sounded like a giant creature crashing through the undergrowth, and the musk and urine smell was overwhelmingly powerful.

Its impossible to capture the feeling of being in the forest without a soundtrack, but I hope these photos give a sense of place.

Giant 500 year-old tree, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Giant 500 year-old tree, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

A brown and yellow snake, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

A brown and yellow snake, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Butterfly, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Butterfly, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Squirrel, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Squirrel, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Red-bellied Trogon, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Red-bellied Trogon, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainbow Boa Constrictor, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainbow Boa Constrictor, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainbow Boa Constrictor, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainbow Boa Constrictor, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

We occasionally saw a young tapir that had been orphaned and raised by the families who run the lodge. It was semi-wild but had little fear of humans, which meant you could watch him at fairly close quarters. Tapirs have spookily human faces, especially the eyes, but generally are quite odd looking creatures. One night he gave everyone a real scare by charging around in the undergrowth behind the cabanas, in the darkness it was a terrifying.

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, into the Amazon rainforest (part 1)

One of the reasons we wanted to visit the Madidi National Park and the Madidi Jungle Ecolodge, was the opportunity to see some of the incredible wildlife that lives and thrives within the dense forests and along the rivers that make up the park. This is one of the most perfectly preserved and biodiverse areas in the world, a vast 19,000 square kilometre area ranging from tropical rainforest to the mountains of the Cordillera Real.

Scientists believe the area protected by the Madidi National Park contains the greatest variety of species anywhere on the planet – giving Madidi serious bragging rights. The statistics are mind-boggling, particularly as new species are still being discovered: the park is home to 867 species of birds, 156 mammals, approximately 109 reptiles and 88 species of amphibians. There could be upwards of 300 different species of fish. The variety of flora is off the scale.

Rainforest and river, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainforest and river, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

That said, your chances of spotting most of these species are pretty remote. Many are rightly keen to avoid contact with humans, many others only come out at night, quite a few live under water, while others keep to the tops of trees when they aren’t flying above the forest. Still, we were hopeful of some success in spotting wildlife, mainly thanks to our highly trained guide and native of the forests, Norman.

Norman, our guide, explains about the 'walking palm', Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Norman, our guide, explains about the ‘walking palm’, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

What Norman doesn’t know about the plants and animals of the forest could be written on the back of a stamp. He spotted an ocelot as we motored up the river from Rurrenabaque, and during our four days in the Madidi he led us on daily walks through the forest spotting numerous others beasties. When not spotting animals, Norman gave us the lowdown on medicinal plants that have been used by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon for thousands of years.

Rainforest, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainforest, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Toucans, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Toucans, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Toucans, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Toucans, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Flower, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Flower, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Spikey tree, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Spikey tree, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

On our first walk through the forest Norma suddenly stopped and motioned for us to be quiet (I thought we were being quiet, but apparently we sounded like a herd of elephants crashing about). He led us off the trail and we found ourselves in the midst of a group of tamarin monkeys. Tamarin’s are squirrel-sized and very agile, they didn’t seem to be bothered about our presence and we watched them moving from tree-to-tree, grooming and eating for 20 minutes.

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey with baby, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey with baby, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

On ocelot and tamarin monkeys on the first day….but there was much more in the forest for us to see.

Tree with vine, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tree with vine, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Red-bellied Trogon, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Red-bellied Trogon, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fallen tree and fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fallen tree and fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Howler monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Howler monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Poison dart frog, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Poison dart frog, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainforest, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainforest, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Capybara, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Capybara, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, gateway to the Bolivian Amazon

Arriving in Rurrenabaque from La Paz is like being transported to a different planet. Everything about this small and sleepy Amazonian town sitting on the banks of the Rio Beni screams different. It drips with tropical heat, is surrounded by lush, forested hills and, the final touch, parrots and parakeets fly screeching overhead. The only things that screech in La Paz are the infernal horns of the micros and taxis.

In part the shock of arriving in Rurrenabaque is down to the short, dramatic flight to get there. Leaving El Alto airport at an altitude of 3800m, you fly between the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Real feeling very small in an eighteen seater plane and, forty-five minutes later, you are deposited in the tropics outside Rurrenabaque’s tiny airport terminal, where the air temperature is thirty degrees hotter than in La Paz.

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

The Rio Beni in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

The Rio Beni in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

You can travel by bus to Rurrenabaque, a journey that takes twenty-four hours if you’re lucky, and which takes you over some of Bolivia’s worst and most dangerous roads. I’m sure the bus is one of those experiences that you’d look back upon retrospectively with a mixture of delight and pride, but at the time it would be a small slice of hell. There was no way I was going to subject my rear end to such a trial.

Inside the Amazonas plane en route to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Inside the Amazonas plane en route to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Amazonas plane at Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

Amazonas plane at Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

The runway at Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

The runway at Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque is the gateway to the absolutely stunning Madidi National Park, one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Jaguars and ocelots rub shoulders with tapirs, toucans and five types of monkeys; the diversity of insects and flora is staggering. The town is full of travellers heading out to spend a few days exploring the vast rainforest and absorbing the rhythm of life away from the distractions of the modern world.

The Madidi National Park is home to numerous indigenous groups, many of whom still live deep inside the forest. A number of these groups have embraced ethno- and eco-tourism since the creation of the park, and small, community run lodges can be found in the forest allowing travellers to experience a unique way of life first hand. That’s the reason we’d dragged ourselves away from freezing La Paz for eight days…not that we needed much convincing.

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque itself is a town low on energy and big on relaxation…the heat and humidity won’t allow for anything else. The best way to enjoy the town is to find a hotel with a swimming pool and a few hammocks. Luckily, Rurrenabaque has plenty of both and you’re rarely in danger of not relaxing. Bring a good book and a flexible schedule.

The town sits at a point on the Rio Beni where it splits and forms an island in mid-river, providing open vistas and stunning sunsets across the river. Surrounding the town, the forested hills have been carved into sugarloaf shapes by wind and rain, reminiscent of South East Asia. The town’s inhabitants reflect the cultures of the Amazon – physically they look different and they dress differently to the highlands of Bolivia.

The Rio Beni in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

The Rio Beni in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Life slowly floats past on the Rio Beni en route to other parts of the Amazon, with occasional canoes stopping in Rurrenabaque with giant catfish for sale. Other than that, the lifeblood of the town is the steady trickle of tourists that daily turn up in the hope of an Amazonian adventure, and intent of thawing their bones after spending time in Bolivia’s altiplano highlands.

"I'll have the checken to the fantasy." Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

“I’ll have the checken to the fantasy.” Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

We would be leaving Bolivia in less than two weeks and we’d saved this delight for our final few days in the country…I’m glad we did, it’s a lovely part of the world and a fitting place to sign-off our time in Bolivia.

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Plunge into the Yungas

Awe inspiring. There is no other way to describe the journey from La Paz to Coroico. The road winds out of La Paz to the mountain pass of La Cumbre; it snakes between snow-capped mountains at a breathless 4800 metres in altitude; it plunges 3600m downwards, taking in a series of hairpin bends and tunnels, before reaching the crystal clear waters of Rio Huarinilla in the valley floor. It then climbs several hundred metres upwards to reach Coroico.

If the small, sleepy village of Coroico defies logic by balancing impossibly on the side of a mountain, the change of landscape, flora and fauna from the high altiplano to the Yungas is even more dramatic. You literally go from ice-capped mountains outside La Paz to the humid, sub-tropical forested hills with colourful birds and butterflies surrounding Coroico…in less than two and a half hours. Its an amazing journey.

Coroico, Bolivia

Coroico, Bolivia

Coroico's main plaza, Bolivia

Coroico’s main plaza, Bolivia

The road we travelled is famous because it was built to replace the World’s Most Dangerous Road, which runs along the mountainside on the opposing side of the valley. While the World’s Most Dangerous Road is now largely the preserve of cyclists and the morons from Top Gear, the new road takes most of the traffic but is no less dramatic – and is a remarkable feat of engineering.

Despite the engineering, landslides still occur. We had to divert off the road onto a dirt track to avoid a partially cleared landslide. Travelling in a minibus on a narrow dirt track without safety barriers, zig-zagging around hairpin bends down a mountainside with 2000m drops, and, at one point, performing a three point turn to get round a particularly vicious corner, is a terrifying introduction to this mesmerising region.

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Once you arrive, Coroico is a really lovely village with a mild climate and spectacular views of the mountains and road we’d just travelled down. At weekends it gets busy with people from La Paz, during the week, when we were there, its a quiet place to spend a few days reading, relaxing, walking local trails and swimming. Coroico probably has more swimming pools per head than anywhere else in Bolivia.

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

The village itself isn’t very pretty, but it has a nice central plaza which is the focal point for local life. From the plaza there are a number of walking routes that take you out of the village and either up mountains or down to beautiful rivers with natural swimming holes. I decided to climb Cerro Uchumachi, a 2500m mountain that has unbelievable views of the village and surrounding mountains.

View of Coroico from Cerro Uchumachi, Bolivia

View of Coroico from Cerro Uchumachi, Bolivia

The route up Cerro Uchumanchi, Bolivia

The route up Cerro Uchumanchi, Bolivia

Views from Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

Views from Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

It was a hard walk straight up the mountainside, and you pass through densely wooded areas that are very humid. By the time I reached the top I was soaked in sweat. When I started, the top of Uchumanchi was covered in low cloud, but by the time I got to the summit the cloud had cleared and there were wonderful views reaching all the way to the mountains of the Cordillera Real.

Views from Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

Views from Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

Views from Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

Views from Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

The summit of Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

The summit of Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

The sign at the summit says Uchumanchi is 2480m in altitude, but I met an Argentinian woman at the top who had an altimeter saying it was 2517m. I could definitely feel those extra 37m in my legs!

Coroico had one more surprise for us before we headed back to La Paz, a spectacular sunset that set the sky alight in oranges, pinks and reds…all with the mountains of the Yungas and Cordillera Real as a backdrop.

Sunset over the Yungas from Coroico, Bolivia

Sunset over the Yungas from Coroico, Bolivia

Sunset over the Yungas from Coroico, Bolivia

Sunset over the Yungas from Coroico, Bolivia

Back in Bolivia…strange goings-on in Copacabana

Copacabana is a quiet town, stuck on a peninsular between glorious Lake Titicaca and the Peruvian border. It has become a centre for travellers transiting between the two countries and a jumping off point for the exquisite Isla del Sol, home of the Inca creation myth. Its a sleepy place that normally has a low-key traveller vibe, but on weekends it comes alive with a very Bolivian mix of fun and faith.

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

When I say faith, I mean that peculiar Bolivian blend of Catholicism and pre-Hispanic beliefs that have been merged to create a religion that celebrates the old and the new(ish). First, there is the true oddity that is the blessing of the cars that takes place outside the cathedral. Getting your vehicle blessed, and decorated, brings good luck and promises safe conduct for those inside the vehicle.

Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Judging by the number of roadside shrines, this isn’t a fool-proof way of getting from A to B in one piece. Personally I’d prefer it if Bolivian drivers drove more carefully: you know, at least one hand on the wheel at all times, not chatting on mobile phones, trying not to eat and drink while overtaking a truck on a hairpin bend on a mountain pass. That sort of thing.

Failing that, it would be good if fewer people got behind the wheel after a skinful of chicha or singani – particularly bus drivers. During our last month in Sucre there were two bus crashes on the road south, one, very serious, with multiple deaths and injuries. Both were the result of drunk driving. Getting your bus blessed won’t help if you’re pissed.

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

A friend in Sucre once told me how the bus she was travelling in was stuck behind a truck moving at a snail’s pace. The bus driver was honking his horn, but couldn’t get the truck to pull over so the bus could overtake. Then, to everyone’s amazement, the driver-side door of the truck opened and the very, very drunk driver simply fell out of his cab while the truck veered off the road. Bless that if you can.

The second oddity is the very public performance of traditional beliefs right under the watchful eye of a statue of Christ and the stations of the cross leading up Cerro Calvario. I walked to the top of this 3966 metre mountain to take the view, at the base of the hill there were a number of traditional priests performing indigenous rites for people. I’ve seen these same rites performed all over Bolivia.

Start of the stations of the cross, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Start of the stations of the cross, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Even at the top of the hill, alongside the Catholic shrine, people are using traditional rites to honour the dead, ask for health, wealth and success. Its a strange sight, but one I think is entirely appropriate for a country that had a very strong belief system, accompanied by a very successful culture, before the Spanish introduced Catholicism at the point of a sword.

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the hill opposite Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the hill opposite Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Although a restful place, we had to move on from Lake Titicaca. We were headed for Coroico in the truly awe inspiring Yungas region of Bolivia. Despite the altitude, we managed to do a nice walk around the lake shore and observe some the traditional life on the lake before we left.

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

A lazy day on the Rio Magdalena

A visit to Mompox wouldn’t be complete without spending some time exploring the Rio Magdalena, the river that made Mompox rich and famous and, later, reduced it to a sleepy backwater. Luckily, finding a small motor boat and a willing captain isn’t too difficult in a town this size. We also found some other tourists wanting to do the trip which meant the price was very reasonable.

As you set off from the bank of the river you get excellent views of the waterfront in Mompox before motoring slowly down the river spotting birds and iguanas as you go. If you had the inclination and time, it would be possible to float all the way down the Rio Magdalena to the Caribbean. You’d finally emerge somewhere near the industrial city of Barranquilla on the coast.

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

This section of the river seems to flow very slowly, at times is doesn’t seem to move at all. An optical illusion that lends weight to the timeless nature of the river and the communities that lie along its banks. Much of the surrounding countryside is farmland so the chances of seeing a lot of wildlife aren’t great, but the landscapes and waterscapes are really beautiful.

Canoe on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Canoe on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Heron on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Heron on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Tributary of the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Tributary of the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Iguana, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Iguana, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

The Rio Magdalena, Colombia

The Rio Magdalena, Colombia

The Rio Magdalena, Colombia

The Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Eagle on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Eagle on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

After motoring up the main river we forked off down a smaller tributary towards a couple of huge inland lakes that form part of the vast waterway system of this region. Eventually we stopped at a small village on one of the lakes and had a walk around the streets much to the amusement of the many small children living there. Gringos are still a rare commodity here.

As we made our way back to the boat the sun started to set and the combination of vast sky and still water created magnificent, luminous reflections. It was truly beautiful, especially viewed from the boat in the middle of the lake. We motored back towards Mompox and rejoined the Rio Magdalena in time to enjoy a spectacular river sunset.

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset over the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset over the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset over the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset over the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Arriving back in Mompox after dark we were greeted by a town vividly illuminated and reflected in the sleepy river – truly beautiful.

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia