Troy vs. The Amazon

imageSuccessfully surviving the ‘world’s most dangerous road’ we were now in the mood for a big city and La Paz wasn’t cutting it this time. We needed propane, grocery supplies and a good night on the town. This was becoming something of a habit, our city fix every few weeks to dance with hip local crowds, sample treats and ferret out the local music scene. Cochabamba was perfect for this. The lonely planet described this Southwest hub as Bolivia’s boom city with an introduction like that we couldn’t miss it.

imageWe exited La Paz for the last time and followed the traffic out and onto another typical Bolivian ‘soon to open in 3035’ super highway that bottle necks to a 10m wide crater ridden road over distance of a few meters. The dusty & stark Altiplano landscape changed very little at first but as we neared the rural fringe of our destination city, foot paths and road verges began to fill with local vendors selling every manner of goods or wares. Street food and fried chicken aromas float with the breeze. But, as Bolivia is, oxygen deprived, dry and dusty air filled our lungs once again. The further we progress poorer areas are increasingly more common. Houses downscale to huts and life becomes rugged and raw. Dusty villages and towns eventually gave way as the landscape opens up, massive angular granite spires and peaks begin to round and soften, hills imagebegin to roll. The exposed layers of strata, colorful and varied, form complex patterns over the hills. Small farming villages dot the country side and soon only local, traditionally dressed folk wondered the roads. This felt very much like the Bolivia we came to know and love.

imageThe route to Cochabamba involved an overnight stop, somewhere where Anna could rest as she was still not feeling that strong. We opted to overnight in the so called undesirable town of Oruro. Most overlanders described this place as a necessary overnight stop with little else to offer, they were correct. The streets were dirty, the wind was gusting and filled was dust. The street vibe seemed a little too transient for our liking. Road conditions between major tourist towns in Bolivia dictate exactly where a likely campsite might be, main focus being a secure place to park and sleep for the night. Urban boon docking in this town is not advisable. We followed coordinates given by previous travelers to a hotel that allowed overlanders to squeeze into their car park and camp behind a huge locked and barbed wired gate. We weave through the un-posted streets and rely less on a thoroughly confused GPS, and more on an iPad app and lonely planet map to get us to the hotel. We eventually get there to do battle with a reverse entry through a narrow gate. Russ negotiates a small overnight fee for toilet no shower for $10. Perfecto? This is another one of those times when it’s not so glamorous and the night is spent holed up in a carpark, inside the camper, cooking tea then hitting bed early so the morning will come sooner and we can be on our way.

imageIn the morning we drove out of Oruro and turned south west towards Cochabamba. The arid landscape morphs from ancient granite mountains to beautiful grass strewn slopes and then into a patchwork quilt of farms and crops. The scenery rolls by in patches of bright greens splotched among the earthy browns of soil and rock. Soon Cochabamba comes into view.

imageThe city’s name is derived from the Quechua khocha pampa, meaning ‘swampy plain’. Cochabamba lies in a fertile green bowl, 25km long by 10km wide, set in a landscape of fields and low hills. To the northwest rises Cerro Tunari (5035m), the highest peak in central Bolivia and as we roll into the center of town the nearby hills and peaks guard the area like they have for millennium. While much of the city is poor there are areas of the city that seem prosperous and seemingly sophisticated. Sophistication in this town, on closer inspection, is directly proportional to one’s bank balance. 

imageCochabamba has a completely different buzz to La Paz, and we like what we see on the busy narrow streets. We ferret out a spot to base ourselves for a few days. We blindly select a hostel that reads well from the lonely planet and make our way there hoping for a nice clean room and parking nearby. The streets are vibrant. Filled with traditional dressed Bolivian woman working, selling or making their way to somewhere. Young trendy students hang in parks, chatting on phones or face booking mates. Businesses of every kind are in full trade. We have been told they love their food, the bar scene is happening and the markets some of the best in the country. We are excited!

DSC_9292We really scored well with the accommodation, a great hostel room that had a window which opens to the car park next door, a perfect view of Troy and penthouse. We collect our ‘hotel bags’ and set up our room. Next we enjoy a long hot shower before donning going out attire. The narrow streets are busy as we search for local beer & Cochabambian cuisine. On the next block are the street food vendors, their variety is tasty & enormous. It has been a long time since we’ve had such choice, burgers, hot dogs, soups, grilled meats and local dishes on offer. We go a little crazy and order up large, still not managing to spend more than $15. We walk off our over indulgence and take in the culture around us. This is a living, breathing and thriving Bolivian city. The tourism in Cochabamba relies heavily on home-grown travelers, foreign tourists, although present, are not very common here. The local way of life still pulses strong through the streets of Cochabamba. We are really enjoying what Cochabamba has to offer. As is when traditional vs. modern clash, the historical or traditional charm of a place can be suppressed under the layer of modernism that comes with success and growth. This was not the case in Cochabamba, the closer we looked the more we liked it here.

imageOur principle reason to drive this way was to shop the local markets and scope out the textile shopping. Anna had determined that prices were cheaper here than in neighboring Peru. Anna reverted effortlessly in to ‘mistress shopaholic’ and led us to deep into the markets and to the fabrics rows. We have been keeping an eye out for choice pieces of anything to decorate our home when we return to Australia. We were told the markets are not touristy and very much a local affair. We were warned that being a tourist was basically being a target and to be extremely cautious when walking around. Having similar experience in black African markets we packed the wallet and secured it inside our trusty ‘pick pocket proof’ pack. Anna had her camera firmly under grip as we jumped a local chicken bus and headed to La Cancha Markets, one of the biggest markets in Bolivia. The city market occupies who knows how many city blocks and is one of the most crowded, chaotic, claustrophobic, and exhilarating shopping locations in Bolivia. We shopped hard for 4 solid hours, wandering lost and spending up on all things bright. Local vendors constantly warned us about watching our pack, vendors also nod wearily at Anna’s camera which is firmly attached around her neck. We venture deeper in to the markets and find the textiles section and successfully purchase a dozen awayu’s at dead set, fair dinkum local prices. Much to the amusement of the local woman staring as Russ closes the deal with the local vendor. An Awayu is the traditional woven blanket, worn mainly by woman on their backs and knotted at the front. It’s used to carry small children and all kinds of items. The fabric is brightly colored with stripes and symbols. Anna was fascinated with the imagedesigns and has big ideas for their uses at home. So as Russ sealed the deal and loaded up the backpack. Ladies of all age sniggered and gawked at the thought of Russ making use of so many Awayu’s, ‘he must have quite a few wives back home and needed that many for them all’ very mysterious is the way of the gringo?

imageWith the main task accomplished we shouted ourselves to one of the nicest restaurants in town and splurge on fine dining. We cabbed from the poor part of town, across the river and to a spacious, cool and hip suburb of where our driver recommends a religious detour while subtlety boasting his city having the largest Jesus in the world. We mention to him ‘what about Rio?’  To which we get a full rundown of the Cristo de la Concordia. The statue is 34.20 metres tall, on a pedestal of 6.24 metres, for a total height of 40.44 metres. The statue is slightly larger than Christ the King in Świebodzin, Poland (if the 2 metres high crown of Christ the King is not counted) and Christ the Redeemer outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, making this the largest statue of Jesus Christ in the world. He drives us to the entrance and encourages us to go and see him for ourselves. He is indeed an impressive site. Now being non-religious people we gracefully skirted around the hordes of people praying to mobile phones and the statue alike. We found quite a good spot to sit and admire his enormity. At least 10 minutes had passed and feeling our godly deed had been done we made a beeline for the cab and bit farewell to the giant Jesus. Our bellies were grumbling and we’d had enough of all things tourist, a short cab ride later we are seated at the Cochabamba classic, Casa de Campo, an open air restaurant serving local dishes with imagea fusion twist and all whilst mingling with the beautiful, sophisticated and rich Cochabamban’s.  We order vegetable sopa, grilled meat and a local rabbit dish and waste our afternoon discussing our next destination, making our way further along into the Amazon.

imageThe route No 4 from Cochabamba into the Santa Cruz province was described to us as uninspiring views and terrible roads. Now if it wasn’t for the end destination we would have heeded this advice and gone the other way, but we felt ready for another adventure and decided to take it on regardless of what had been said. Excellent road conditions are generally found on the National Highways, but this is still rural Bolivia, it’s a given that road conditions are going to be poor.

imageThe views on this route were anything but uninspiring. The brown marshy flats turned back into green lush rain forest. Thick jungle dominated the mountains towering above us as we drive on a really cool country road. The road is paved the entire way, but, sections of road have moved, dipped, dropped or disappeared altogether, potholes and craters notwithstanding. Blind corners are aplenty and when oncoming heavy vehicles occupy our side of the road, yeah, adrenalin injection. After a solid day of driving we make it to the small town of Buena Vista which is nestled on the lowlands of the Santa Cruz province. Buena Vista also rubs shoulders with its neighbor the Amboro National park, and our gateway further into the Amazon jungle.

imageWe arrive on sunset with an empty gas tank and are greeting with road cones blocking gas stations entries and an attendant waving us the ‘no gas’ signal. Both local gas stations had run dry and we resigned for the afternoon and hoped the morning bode better. We cruise around the beautiful but small town plaza, and again as Troy roars past locals we get the usual stares and nods. We park and open our doors to the first heat we have felt in a while. The tropical warmth hits us we smile at each other knowing we are in Amazon country! There is no actual campground in town and like so many times before we set about asking locals where is possible for us to camp the night. Eventually local German general store owner pointed us in the direction of the coffee plantation, suggesting they had large space and might possibly accommodate us. So with our sketchy direction we set of onto dirt tracks past local villages and huts until we see a sign ‘El Cafetal’ and that very moment we think we have discovered an absolute hidden gem.

imageRuss chatted in Spanglish with the staff and they kindly agreed to let us park on their manicured front lawn, front and center in their beautiful tropical jungle property. We were the first camper to ever visit and stay with them at the coffee plantations and they were excited to have foreign travelers here at their place enjoying what their town has to offer, no charge required. The Café and surrounding land is a local initiative that employs local villages to grow, roast and package organic coffee for export and share in the profits. Bolivian’s were proving to be an absolutely wonderful people. After parking Troy under a light and next to a power source we started to gaze around at where we actually were and we both just stood, slack jawed, staring at the view in front of us.

imageEl Cafetal is in the midst of lush vegetation on the edge of the Amboro National Park, surrounded by well maintained gardens and in absolute harmony with nature. Built up on a ridge that overlooks the wonderful landscape of the Amboró NP. The ranch occupies an area of 300 hectares. The coffee initiative marked the beginning of a comprehensive tourism project that today proudly showcases the Hotel Hacienda El Cafetal and administers the Bolivia Exporta Foundation.

imageThe sun was starting to set as we climbed the 12 metre observation tower to get a better view across to the national park to see the Amazon Jungle better. It was a truly spectacular site lit under an orange and pink dusk. We toasted a beer and sat and enjoyed the show. When the morning arrived we marveled some more at the view in full sunlight. We could have been standing somewhere in Kenya at that moment, the view was exactly the same, even the trees and vegetation looked so similar. We were excited to be looking into the Amazon Jungle and keen to get in there. After making use of the facilities and taking a swim in the pool to cool down we headed back into town to chase gasoline and make our way into Amboro NP.

imageHoping this would be easy we joined the first queue of cars at the first gas station. We waited about an hour in the heat before it was our turn to hit the pump. Even before we rolled into the space we had a bad feeling. They attendants were examining the plates, sniggering at our foreign face, Russ took a breath and jumped out armed with his Spanglish gas lingo. A 15 minute conversation commenced with the refusal to sell to us. We alerted them to the fact that we has no gas and couldn’t move, we need gas, and you can sell to us, all to no avail. The growing audience was becoming frustrated at us holing up the flow of purchase and we resigned to trying the second station in town. With 90 minutes wasted we proceed to join another hour long queue then eventually are served, filled up and ready to hit the road. Week 2 into Bolivia and the gas situation is a pain in the butt, we needed to crack a plan of attack for future fill ups, but we paused that thought and filed it in the ‘to do’ box in our brains.

imageParque Nacionál Amboró is one of the most botanically rich national parks in the world. There is over 125 mammal species including puma, ocelot, and the rare Spectacled Bear all that were defiantly on our list of wildlife still to spot! This extraordinary park crosses two ‘divides’: the warmer northern Amazonian-type section, and the southern Yungas-type section, with cooler temperatures (and noticeably fewer mosquitoes!). The park entrance requires river crossings, one wide flowing one followed by another 2 in order to get into the heart of the fauna. We were set for an adventure and made our way towards the river, amped for some river crossings.

imageWe drive the sand tracks towards the river where the locals stop what they are doing an watch in wonder as Troy and Penthouse roll up to the river’s edge. They watch us curiously as Russ makes the 4WD adjustments for our first deep crossing. We sit and watch the river for a few minutes, Russ assessing if we can actually make this, the river is 150 m wide and around 1.2m deep and the water is flowing at a steady velocity. Local men look at our clearance and give us an encouraging nod. We watch a small truck cross and make the call do it, Troy rolls down the river embankment and into the river and straight away the water is at the bottom of the doors. Russ is in low range 4×4 and speeds up to keep his engine speed up, he’s also managed to created a descent bow wave to help keep water from swamping the engine. We bounce and gurgle over rocks, sand and holes and the water level seriously seemed shallower from the shore. It is a strange feeling when your entire home and possessions might soon be ‘in the river’. The closeness of the water when looking out of the window or in the side mirrors nervously constricts the throat imageuntil we are across river, up the steep embankment and onto the safely of dry land. We make it to the other side, no sweat. Troy didn’t miss a beat, as usual, and suddenly river crossings don’t seem so daunting. The now large crowd give us a cheery applause and we set off through the park gates.

imageThe road quickly turn to tracks and sandy dust turns to slippery mud. We give each other a look of ‘is this such a good idea?’ Both wondering if any other truck campers had come along this route before. Troy was loving it, he is made for this, he has new mud tires and plenty of horses under the bonnet. Troys real burden is the weigh he is carrying. We brace penthouse for a bumpy ride and push on through the wheel ruts in the mud. The jungle gets thicker and greener. The noises of a hundred different birds and insects overpowers the stereo. The lushness of the amazon is everywhere around us and then after another 7 Km we come to the second river crossing. The river is smaller, it is still wide but not as deep or fast. No worries, we charge across with confidence and excitement. 2 for 2, one more and we are in the heart!

imageWith our late start to the day due to gas purchasing the sun was already starting to dip, with one more crossing and a fair drive inland to the camp we start to hustle through the tracks which brings us to the 3rd and final crossing. Automatically our faces drop and the excitement fades. It’s deep, real deep and as Russ wades across to investigate and returns with the no go shake of the head. We would like to think we are as capable as most other 4wd overlanders. But we know our limits and this was one. With heavy hearts we turned around and made our way back towards the entrance. Debating whether to just camp in the wilderness here but we were deterred by some locals who wouldn’t give us their confidence in the safety of the area due to a small population living in the surrounds. With this information and a setting sun we high tailed it towards the mainland and El Cafetal.

imageWithin 15 minutes we are driving the jungle mud tracks in the dark. As we round a corner we come across workers whose truck is stuck half way up the incline of a hill, the track is a heaving mud pit and their truck has slipped into the middle of it. After the obligatory 3 second watching of the wheels spin the workers break out the shovels and dig and dig. Russ backs us off to the bottom of the hill to avoid the truck if it slides too far back. The work boys are pushing and digging, not fancying being stuck out here for the night. We gulp at the thought of our own efforts to get up this hill after they get going because now the track is a real mess. 30 mins later they push their way out and are tracking towards the crest of the hill. Now our friends, they wait and watch as we make our attempt. Russ pushes Troy hard and crosses his fingers. We impress with a flawless ride and pop up the top with no effort required. We agree to follow behind the truck until the river crossings for safety. We mentioned the feeling of river crossings in the day, multiply that by 1000 for the dark. It’s just feels wrong and half way through the last and widest one we finally breathe a sigh of relieve and enjoy the adrenalin kick. Adventures. You never know how they will turn our or which watch they will go, this is what makes them fun!

imageWe spend another night camping at El Cafetal, making plans to further explore the area, work our way around the park and hang out in the jungle a little longer. Russ returns from the toilet only to spot something very special, an up-close and personal encounter with Mr Sloth. We haven’t seen these guys since Costa Rica and not this close. We creep in front of the camper for a better view and for the next 10 minutes watch Mr Sloth crawl along the fence, onto the ground and under the palapa before sniffing out the kitchen and disappearing into the fauna. He moved ever so slowly and ever so gracefully. We try not to alert the camp dogs to his presence, hes not much of a fighter and looses most predator battles. To watch his motions close up in the wild was truly a privilege. 

imageThe next day we decide to drive through 100km or so of jungle towns dotted along the river separating Buena Vista and Amboro NP. Overnight it had rained and as we approached the river we are thank full we came back last night. The river was swollen in flood, trees floated past and waves were cresting in the channels. No one was crossing and locals told us it can take 2-3 days for the level to drop. We were glad to be on this side of the brown surging river. We spent a better part of the day weaving in and out of tropical villages and exploring the river’s edge. The tropical trees and plants reminded us of far north QLD and all that was missing were splattered cane toads on the roads. The local people were smiley and curious of us. Their simple way of life untouched by modernism. It felt like a world away from any city and easy to get lost in.

imageOur German general shop owner mentioned there was a privately run jungle not far from town, owned by a British bird researcher and a German running an Eco hostel. We could try our chances at camping there and enjoying our very own piece of the amazon. We located the drive way and as we start to push through the low and narrow branches the sky turns dark and another tropical downpour sets it. The long overgrown driveway seems to go on forever and we contemplate turning back. Russ moves slightly off the track to miss an overhead tree limb suddenly the front slides into a drainage ditch across the track, no problem and we reverse out. The next time we move forward again we drive slightly further off the track and the rear wheel slides into a side drain and is up to its axle in mud, the engine roars but we are not moving. It’s dark, pouring a torrent with rain and we are stuck in the middle of a very isolated piece of jungle, blocking the only track in or out. We grab our raincoats and headlamps and walk up the hill side in search of a light in the very dark & wet Amazonian jungle.

Check out the Cochabamba and Amazon pics :

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