A Travellerspoint blog

June 2012

On The Road at Last

Hard Landing in Santa Cruz

semi-overcast 84 °F

Day 1-2 Helena > Santa Cruz

Despite finishing day 7 of the Big Trek, I’m only just making my first entry in what I had hoped would be a more ongoing record of events. Oh Well, so much for the best of intentions. I guess it is just best to begin at the beginning. Day one, Monday June 11, 4:30 am up and at ‘em for a 6:00 am departure on Delta from Helena to Detroit to Fort Lauderdale. The plan is to catch a shuttle from FLL to Miami then Miami to Santa Cruz Bolivia with a 6 hour layover in Lima. Despite an inexorably long line to get through security in Helena, we managed to depart without incident. With only an hour between flights for the stateside portion of the trip it all needs to go smoothly. But with fair skies and no storms on the horizon, we settled in for a long day of travel.

We landed in MSP on time and made our way to the gate for the flight to Detroit. The kids are carrying their backpacks minus sleeping bags. Anne and I checked or backpacks along with another duffle carrying the sleeping bags, my hiking boots, Aidan’s boots and a couple of deflated soccer balls for pick-up games with the locals.

Taxiing out from the gate at MSP all seems well except for too long a delay at the end of the runway. What began as a typical travel day in the over-filled cattle cars that have been substituted for airplanes is suddenly transformed into my own personal travel nightmare spelled “mechanical failure”. The back-up generator has failed and now we are on our way back to the gate. With only an hour to spare in Detroit we are screwed. Fortunately, we brought along one of the kids trac-phones so I immediately called Delta to see if we can somehow get to Miami in time to catch a flight on LAN to Bolivia. Normally, I wouldn’t be so concerned except that with 4 of us flying I knew we would be hard pressed to find seats for all of us. I managed to get a good operator at Delta and within 20 minutes we are booked on a flight to Atlanta then Miami for all of us. But what about our bags? Delta assures us that there is plenty of time to switch them from the Detroit bound plane and they will be in Miami when we arrive. I’m not quite so confident but am not really in a position to affect the situation one way or the other.
As you might have guessed when we arrive in Miami our bags are sitting in Detroit. Our other problem is that we are traveling on a split ticket so at the end of the day Delta only really feels compelled to drop our bags in Fort Lauderdale despite the fact that we are on our way to South America. What a cluster f. But the new math for travel representatives is just to tell you whatever they think that you want to hear. At 10:00 pm they actually have the cajones to tell me that they are still hoping that bags landing in Fort Lauderdale at 10:40 will still manage to catch our LAN flight leaving Miami at 12:00.

Arriving in Santa Cruz Bolivia the next afternoon we didn’t wait around too long to see if our bags were actually coming off the plane. With glum faces as we contemplate the many creature comforts left behind, a super nice guy with LAN in Santa Cruz takes down our information and assures us that he will do everything in his power to have our bags delivered to our hotel in the next day or so. Despite his cheery confidence, the fact that I’m standing in a third world airport and our bags are some 5,000 miles away leaves me with a gnawing pit in my stomach as I wonder where I will ever find a decent pair of boots in a country where the average height is about 5’3. I’m guessing los zapaterias don’t carry much in size 12.

Fortunately, we did contemplate this possibility so Anne and I are at least carrying an extra set of clothes along with the small pharmacy we had put together to hopefully keep everyone healthy. Unfortunately, the chargers for my computer and my camera were stuck behind, so I have a really heavy camera bag with a computer and only one set of batteries and no charger. But there is another flight coming from Miami in the morning and all should be well then.

It has been a while since I have done any travelling in the third world and the ride into Santa Cruz, a city of some 2 million souls was an education for all of us. I had to laugh as I thought about the number of people that asked us if we planned to rent a car. Holy Crap! We wouldn’t have made it out of the airport parking lot. First, imagine leaving a decent sized metropolitan airport where the city has grown up around it without any street signs or other directions to indicate how to get anywhere. Then get rid of all but the most rudimentary of traffic controls. No lanes, no stop signs, roads leaving and entering from all directions, not to mention bumper to bumper traffic all going way too fast. In my finest days of San Francisco city driving I would have been chopped liver within a minute.
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In the hour or so that it took to negotiate the 14 miles into the city center I was sure that we were going to crash at least a dozen times. But our driver delivered us intact to our hotel Residencial Bolivar without incident. Santa Cruz is a hard place to land after 36 hours traveling even without the stress of lost luggage. Fortunately, Residencial Bolivar was a veritable oasis and refuge in an otherwise large, dirty, noisy third world city. Near the main plaza, it is in the oldest part of the city. I’m guessing the building is well over one hundred years old, all one level with a large courtyard filled with tropical plants and a pet toucan named Simone. The kids weren’t too taken with Santa Cruz and looked like they were wondering what we had bamboozled them into. But a hotel with a pet toucan that will sit on your arm makes up for a lot. P1040182.jpg
That evening we made our way to the plaza and found a bar with a nice view. Anne and I each had a Ciaparena, and the kids had sundaes. I also discovered a really good Bolivian brown ale, Pacena Black, and despite the lost luggage, eighty-five degrees and 90% humidity (in winter), I really couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. Considering the hard day, we decided to splurge with dinner that night at Café Lorca, one of Santa Cruz’ more stylish café’s. I had fried alligator that was delicious. With drinks, the tab came to 246 Bolivianos or about $25 for the four of us.
The room at Residencial Bolivar was small but super clean with very comfortable beds and really nice staff. But for our lost luggage I might have slept well.

Posted by White Buffalo 13:23 Archived in Bolivia Comments (7)

Samaipata and the Cloud Forest

Of Moneys and Giant Tree Ferns

semi-overcast 75 °F

Day 3 – 6 Samaipata

Got up the next morning painfully aware of all the gear that was missing but really glad to have the basics to get by. I managed to track our bags on the internet only to discover that they were still sitting in Fort Lauderdale as I had feared they might. Spent the morning calling Delta who deftly delivered another string of platitudes, increased our stash of cash, and considered our options. Since the Travel Gods were firmly in control of our fate, we decided to continue with our plan to travel to Samaipata a small town about 2½ hours west of Santa Cruz on the edge of Amboro National Park. Negotiated a taxi to the place where we could catch another taxi to Samaipata. Found a guy to take us there for 30 Bolivianos each or about 4 dollars a piece for the three hour drive. The taxi could hold 7 passengers along with the driver and since he had only collected six people we needed to wait for another passenger to come along before we could leave. I quickly did the math and gladly paid the extra fare to send us on our way.

We picked up another older woman on the way out of town with a mountain of stuff not the least of which were carefully packed eggs or something equally fragile. When we stopped to fill up with natural gas, the fuel of choice in the Bolivian lowlands, I took the opportunity to use the bano and missed out on the big excitement of the journey. Bridget wanted something out of her pack, and Anne, the ever attendant mother, promptly opened the back of the van where upon a mountain of stuff rained down not the least of which was the old woman’s fragile cargo. The benefits of not knowing the language helped shield the onslaught of the old woman’s rage. Anne had no idea what she said but it was something akin to a long string of expletives to chasten the careless gringa lady that tipped over the apple cart. From there it was a long stony silence for the next 2 ½ hours to Samaipata.

Leaving the flat countryside, we quickly ascended into the mountains along a series of steep forested river valleys. We passed through several towns and villages that all looked very poor and ratty, but as we ascended into the mountains we began to see some very large, well attended homes with grand vistas of the valley below. Many of the steep hills were cultivated and I wondered if it might be coca they were growing but it turns they were just vacation homes of wealthy people from Santa Cruz.
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Samaipata is a really quaint village that sits at the top of a large river valley. We stayed at the Hostal Andorina, a small B&B run by Andre’ an ex-pat from Holland and his Bolivian wife. The next morning we found a small tour company to take us to El Fuerte, the Fort, a large archeological site on top of a mountain some miles out of Samaipata. Our guide, Tibu, informed us in Spanish translated by Anne, that El Fuerte is one of the oldest archeological sites in South America, more than 2,000 years old, and used by the Incas and a variety of pre-Incan civilizations as a sacred religious site for prayer and sacrifice. The Spanish provided the moniker “El Fuerte” speculating that it must have been a military site due to its advantageous position on a hill perched in a high bowl with mountains surrounding that provided a watershed for the some 2,000 people that resided there in centuries past.

The hills of this particular location were particularly dry as compared with the surrounding country-side and dominated by a long needled pine tree and Eucalyptus that were introduced from Europe and Australia in the last 50 years to control erosion. As you can imagine, the erosion is still prevalent and the pine and eucalyptus are doing a splendid job of crowding out the native plants. It seems that the Do-Gooders ability to screw up the environment is a universal human attribute.
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El Fuerte is an amazing site and a strong reminder that this rugged landscape has a rich history that goes far beyond anything you might learn in your basic history lessons. After several hours we returned to Samaipata, caught some lunch and decided to go check out the Refugio Zoologico, a sanctuary for rescued animals. This small, unassuming enclave was about a 15 minute walk from town. As we entered, we could see several large enclosures with a variety of parrots and monkeys and several standard farm animals grazing nearby. We were greeted by a young woman that took our 40 bvs entrance fee and proceeded to walk through. Then came the monkeys. Several species of Howler and Spider monkeys were just out running loose and immediately came over to visit the new arrivals. Swinging from trees and bushes, after all of about 30 seconds we each had a monkey perched on our shoulders. One larger Howler Monkey, took an immediate liking to Anne, and perched on her head, he proceeded to howl letting all of the world know just how much he adored his new friend. There was a large black spider monkey that liked to swing from your arm and several baby howlers that were content just to nuzzle in the crook of your neck and lick the salt from the sweat on your hands. Unfortunately for the monkeys, our recent arrival from civilization meant that our hair was free from any fleas or lice, but they checked all of our hair just to make sure there weren’t any goodies to be found. It is difficult to express just how super cute they were. The contrast between any zoo or rescue center I have visited in the states was vast, and the staff there was actually surprised that similar facilities don’t allow such direct contact with the animals. The animals that were caged were only contained to prevent them from running off or if they happened to be biters. It all just seemed so sensible.
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That evening, after booking a trek for a hike to a cloud forest the next day and catching a bite to eat, I went and found an Internet Café to check and see if there was any word on our luggage. An email from the LAN representative indicated that unfortunately our bags had not arrived that day as hoped and more alarming was the admission that at this point no one really knew where they were. The reality that we could spend the rest of the trip without most of our belongings seemed to have moved from possibility to likelihood. Despite the absence of numerous creature comforts, I was really mourning the loss of my hiking boots and the power cords for my computer and battery chargers for cameras. The loss of warm sleeping bags would also mean that we were in for some very cold nights during upcoming treks on the altiplano.
After dinner, I ran into Andre’, the owner of the hostal. As we told him of our adventures and plans to hike the cloud forest the next day, he mentioned that he might have some hiking boots that would fit me. I thankfully jumped at the offer. The boots were quite old and worn but they fit reasonably well and provided a big step up from the very light canvas crocs that I was wearing.

The next morning we met our guide, Renaldo. A young guy with a family who’d grown up in Samaipata and spent 6 years at the University in Cochabamba studying tourism and botany. He spoke English reasonably well, but with Anne speaking Spanish he quickly dropped back into his native tongue.

The cloud forest was nothing short of amazing. Within a few minutes of hiking up a steep trail we moved from a relatively dry climate to dense jungle. On the way we encountered several Green Toucans, a Carpenter Bird that looked and behaved much like a large Flicker, and a mother Howler Monkey and her baby. Renaldo’s knowledge of the medicinal properties of numerous plants was very impressive distinguishing a large variety of medicinal plants from what appeared to the untrained eye as a mostly dense green forest. The giant tree ferns were super cool. With a hard trunk like any typical tree at the top is a large top-not with giant fern fronds eminating from it. Large leaves are up to 8 feet in length and a good 4 feet wide.
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The hike took about 6 hours and I was really thankful for the boots since many parts of the trail were steep and muddy. Not the terrain for lounge shoes. The fact that our hosteler had completely saved my bacon was not lost on me as I contemplated where I might come up with another set of boots.

When we returned that evening, I stopped be the internet cafe to attend to what had now become the luggage ritual and the email from LAN informed us that our bags had in fact arrived and would be delivered forthwith to our hotel. The Travel Gods had smiled, and we all let out a huge sigh of relief.

It rained hard that night and on Saturday the 16th we packed up, caught a taxi and headed back to Santa Cruz to collect our things and fly out to Sucre. Apart from the fact that our driver kept falling asleep while negotiating a windy, narrow mountain road the return trip was uneventful. As we approached Santa Cruz the rain came harder and we quickly received an education in the benefits of infrastructure. All the Tea Party nut jobs that don´t think the government is providing any value would do well to make that drive. It is amazing and not very pretty when you concentrate a lot of people in one place with no government services like garbage collection or storm drains just to name a couple of key items.

We returned to the Residencial Bolivar, the kids glad to see the toucan Simone, and Anne and I happy to be done with the luggage saga.
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Posted by White Buffalo 13:25 Archived in Bolivia Comments (2)

Sucre the White City

sunny 70 °F

Sucre – June 17 – 22

We landed in Sucre with clear, sunny skies, happy that we hadn’t stayed in Cochabamba if only for some of the worst air quality I’ve run across since I was in Taipei nearly 30 years ago. The Sucre airport was a bit of a sight. The main terminal had some boarded up windows and the control tower had clearly been constructed in phases so that nothing fit quite right. Just another subtle reminder that we’re not in Kansas anymore. We bade fair well to Mara, a young Danish woman that we befriended en route, collected our duffel bag full of sleeping bags and headed for the curb.

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A short taxi ride took us to our Hostal – La Dolce Vita – a small place not far from the main plaza with a lovely courtyard run by two Swiss ex-pats that were really friendly and extremely helpful when it came to explaining the city. Bridget immediately took to the place if only for presence of Michi a very amiable Siamese cat. Sucre is a city of approximately 250,000. It is an old colonial city and the judicial capital of Bolivia. Deservedly a world heritage site for its amazing colonial architecture it is Bolivia’s most beautiful city and home to 4 public and several private universities which provide a certain vibrance typical to university towns.
Sucre is a lovely city by any measure. The people are friendly, the architecture is stunning and with a good loaf of French bread fetching all of 2 bvs or about 30 cents and a buck for a decent Bolvian pils there’s not much to leave you wanting. I have to admit, I was also a bit surprised at how stunning the women are. The Indians look far more Asian than Spanish and the faces of the old people could provide a never ending series of portraits depicting humanities toil.

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Besides the fact that Sucre is a must for any visit to Bolivia, we planned to spend the next 5 days with all four of us in language school. Anne honing her very capable skills and I attempting to resurrect what was left of 4 years of Spanish classes almost 30 years ago. Me Gusta Spanish School was located just down the street from our hostal and around the corner. Run by a nice young couple Fernando and Ely Gonzalez, it was one of the few language schools that I could find that would take kids.
We spent the first afternoon strolling around the many parks and other highlights of Sucre then at 8:15 a.m. sharp, we marched down to school with notebooks and language dictionaries in hand. The kids complained bitterly that it really wasn’t fair that they should have to go to school during summer vacation, but we reminded them that this wasn’t a typical summer vacation. Me Gusta is a small school with not more than a dozen or so students at any one time. After some testing to determine our level, Fernando took the kids, Anne went with the advanced group and I was left with an Australian gal named Kate. I was comforted by the fact that she was in decidedly worse shape than I when it came to comprehension and with that Australian accent injected into her speech, I felt like a real pro.
The standard class was 4 hours in the morning and I had thought about doing the intensive version with an extra 2 hours in the afternoon. After 4 hours of non-stop Spanish my brain was complete mush and I was as ready for the final bell as any typical school kid. I had overworked some brain cells that hadn’t been exercised in a really long time. I had to believe that maybe part of it had been removed. With mornings spent in class, not to mention another hour or so of homework in the afternoon, our days in Sucre flew past, highlighted by the Ballet de Origenes a live show that exhibited the costumes and traditional dances of various indigenous people of the area. Other highlights included the Indigenous Textiles Museum that exhibited the most unbelievable weaving I have ever seen. After spinning the wool by hand then dying it with natural dyes, a 3x4 panel typically requires about 3 months to finish. Each area of the country has their own unique designs. P1040206.jpg P1040319.jpgThe Museum of Ethnographic Folklore had an exhibit of ritual masks that were extremely ornate and completely spooked the kids. On Thursday night we had dinner with Fernando and Ely and their two young children, and I can honestly say that for the first time ever I participated in and followed a conversation completely in Spanish and actually understood a good part of it. The beauty of speaking Spanish in Bolivia is that for 60% of the population it is their second language, most people speak Quechua or Aymara along with 30 other dialects so they tend speak more slowly than in most of the other Latin America countries and it is much easier to understand.
We finished classes on Friday morning and then caught an afternoon bus for the 2 ½ hour trip to Potosi.
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Posted by White Buffalo 18:21 Archived in Bolivia Comments (2)

Potosi -Tough Living and Rough History in a Difficult Place

sunny 58 °F

Potosi – June 22 – 25

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Leaving Sucre, we ascended a long river valley, the hills covered with mahogany and greasewood, the bottoms supporting stands of pepperwood and eucalyptus. The view from the roadway could have just as easily been a side trip through the hills of Southern California as the lower reaches of the Altiplano. As we continued higher in elevation large cactus similar to small saguaro appeared and the vegetation thinned. After ascending to around 11,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation, we reached a high plateau and began to see numerous enclaves of not more than a couple of squat mud-brick homes with small agricultural plots terraced into the surrounding hills. Herds of llamas, sheep and goats each with a tender sprinkled the countryside foraging for what little the sparse hills could provide._DSC3607_01.jpg_DSC3603.jpg
Potosi is an incongruous place. Located at more than 13,000 feet in elevation thin bunch-grass is the primary vegetation quickly giving way to disturbed soil in every direction. The main highway enters a large basin framed by the peak of Cerro Rico the richest mountain on earth that has been mined continuously since 1545. Active and abandoned adits are visible across the mountain along with small groups of miners clustered nearby and their minimal tools associated with the mostly hand labor used to extract the ore.
The new bus terminal where we arrived looks completely out of place among the mud, brick, stucco and tile that comprises 99% of the architecture. The circular blue glass and steel exterior structure with white marble interior belongs in a decidedly more modern locale than the rough and tumble hodgepodge that is Potosi. A short taxi ride delivered us up the hill to The Koala Den, a backpackers hostal near the main plaza inhabited by mostly young European gringos surprised to see Anne and I with our family in tow. The proprietors were very friendly and helpful, but a cramped room badly in need of a good cleaning and new paint left Bridget questioning the premise of our whole adventure. We caught dinner that night at a small pizzeria where I had a delicious llama steak, the girls settled for soup and Aidan pasta. It’s no wonder that I am the only one that has suffered any gastronomic challenges on the trip so far.

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We spent the morning touring the Casa de Moneda, the Spanish mint established in the early 1600’s which became the primary source of Spain’s wealth for the next several hundred years. It is a fascinating story of early industrialization and exploitation. It is estimated that 8 million black slaves imported from Africa died in the mint alone, not to mention those that died in the mines.

That afternoon we hooked up with The Big Deal mine tour operator for a first-hand look at life in the mines of Cerro Rico. Our guide Pedro, an ex-miner himself was first rate and his knowledge of the mines and their operation was vast. We stopped first at the Miners’ Mercado to purchase gifts of coca leaves, cigarettes, nearly pure cane alcohol, and sodas for the miners. From there we went to a refining facility that would give even the most jaded OSHA inspector nightmares.

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A short ride further up the mountain delivered us to a small adit where we entered the mountain. A maze of small tunnels took us into the bowels of the mountain, taking care to step over and around large holes that led straight down into the reaches below. Since it was Saturday of San Juan de Noche, the Aymara New Year, there were not a lot of miners working that day. P1040373.jpg We did find one fellow, working alone with a pick and shovel, we bestowed numerous gift and watched in awe as he packed a hole with dynamite. With the fuse in place and the dynamite well packed we moved back up the tunnel to wait for the blast. A loud kaboom, dust, and the strong smell of burnt gunpowder indicated our blast master knew his business. Bridget was not happy with the noise level to put it mildly. He was unhappy though since the ton or so of displaced rock was mostly waste rock that would have to be moved by hand in the ongoing search for valuable ore that provided his livelihood.
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After the blast, we moved back down the tunnel and into a small sanctuary that held Tio or “the Uncle”, a straw and mud figure where the miners made prayers and gave offerings of coca leaves, tobacco, and alcohol. Tio provides safety, good fortune, and a link to Panchamama, the earth mother who protects all. The Mine Tour offered a fascinating insight into the proud tradition of miners that devote a life’s work to finding a good vein. By all accounts, despite the back-breaking labor, they really do quite well making on average of $200 to $500 dollars (U.S.) a week working in the mines, high wages in Bolivia.

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That evening we hooked up with Pedro 2, who works with Pedro 1 on the tours, for a party at his parent’s house to celebrate San Juan de Noche. We built a big bonfire in the alley outside their house. The old Senora reminded us a little of Michael’s sister Diane - she just kept the drinks flowing. We drank and lit off fire-works until well past midnight.
Moving slowly the next day, we made our way to a small neighborhood well off the beaten path to the Resturante Don Eugenia for a traditional Bolivian maize soup in which they drop a very hot rock in your bowl that makes the soup boil. The place was packed with nary a gringo for blocks and the food was far and away the best that we’d had in Bolivia. On the way home we stopped at Potosi’s main cemetery. Being Sunday, there were many families tending the graves of loved ones with fresh flowers and prayers. The contrast with any cemetery I’ve ever run across in the states was startling. It was obvious, that for many of the people there it was a very regular pilgrimage to visit their family graves.
The next morning we were up at 6:00 a.m. to catch the 8:00 bus for the 5 hour trip south to the small town of Tupiza.

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Posted by White Buffalo 19:41 Archived in Bolivia Tagged bolivia potosí Comments (2)

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