The German, a nun and a Prickly Pig

imageThe sensation of wheels spinning in the mud can be pretty cool, especially if the vehicle is moving and preferably sideways. The same sensation when the vehicle is stationary is not so cool but no big problem. But, when we experienced wheel spin in our 4WD, complete with big tires especially designed for mud driving, it proved to be more a saga than a problem. And what’s more, to compound our problem we were on a very narrow & very remote track in the Amazon jungle during an impressive tropical deluge. We were bogged with no winch & self-recovery likely the only way out, this is how Global Inc Safari found themselves on this dark and particularly wet Amazonian evening. With no other option available Russ, armed with his headlamp, raincoat and jungle jandals (havianas) followed the track into a complete darkness that is the jungle at night.

nightRuss walked slowly, allowed his night vision to develop as he tracked the washed out wheel ruts  in the dark. At times precious ambient light managed to filter through holes in the canopy where trees had been felled during the construction of the track. Having resign to a potentially long walk for help Russ came to a fork in the track, not more than a kilometer from where he had left Anna & Troy. Closing one eye he switched on the headlamp saw the main track continued straight ahead and the other appeared to be a driveway of sorts, after a short one eyed, wonky walk up the driveway he was pleasantly surprised to see a house up a small rise but there were no lights and nobody appeared to be home, bugger. Russ continued on the main track for another 600 odd meters and saw a very dim light glowing through the growth. The light disappeared when he looked at it directly, but in peripheral vision it was as bright as a search light.

digginThe light disappeared and reappeared as the track snaked toward potential help. The downpour was slowly abating and Russ could make out an outline of a porch and the source of the light, but under the canopy it might as well have been raining as every faint breeze brought a new drenching from above. Russ knocked on the door and was greeted by an older Bolivian woman who spoke perfect English, this has to be the English Bird watchers residence, and was he invited in. After a brief introduction Russ explained what had happened and if help could be forthcoming. The Brit gave an emphatic “no, not a chance of any kind help from me sunshine, go and see the German in the other house” but he did impart some advice to Russ “never drive off the track, that would be disastrous, I had a sign at the main gate stating that but it fell down and I never repaired it”, yeah, thanks for nothing wanker.  With nothing else to say Russ bid the couple good evening, apologised for the intrusion and slowly walked back to the other house in the vain hope that somebody was home. During the walk back Russ formed a recovery plan and mentally prepared himself for no sleep and a lot of digging, more so if the rain kept up.

imageThe good news was that the German was home, he welcomed Russ in and he had a guest that spoke excellent English. The bad news is that he had a 2WD car, bald tires and no winch. We cannot remember his name so for the sake of the yarn we will call him Hans. After a brief Spanglish/ English/ German explanation of what had happened Hans said he would help us recover troy from the clutches of the jungle, but, after his dinner. Russ trudged back to Anna and prepared the recovery strap for an attempt at forward recovery. The back of Hans’s car appeared a half an hour later, tail lights bright in the darkness as he reversed down the track and stopped at the end of the recovery strap. After brief introductions and a detailed instruction as to what Russ wanted to happen the strap was attached to Hans’s vehicle and we were ready to go. Russ beeped once and Han’s gunned his car up the track taking up the slack in the strap as he went.

imageThe theory is the strap acts as a super heavy duty elastic band and will stretch some 20-30% in length all the while gaining elastic potential energy as it reaches a maximum stretched length, without delving into basic physics the stuck vehicle should slingshot out of trouble with the aid of the forward dynamic energy of the recovery vehicle… in theory. In practice Hans’s car decelerated from 35-0 km/h in 10mm and nearly pulled the arse out of his car. Also, in hindsight, I should have told him to wear his seat belt and brace for the strap take up and impact. Han’s, the poor bugger, staggered from his vehicle dazed, bleeding from the brow and cursing colorfully in German. Russ didn’t really think it was going to work but we’d never of known unless we tried it. Plan ‘B’ involved a bigger 4WD vehicle, brought in from the rear, with lots of friendly neighboring Bolivian blokes, axes, spades, shovels, hand winches, pulley’s , steel cables, ropes, torches, food and drink, discussion & planning, talking, laughter, swearing, frustration, resignation and finally defeat.

imageThe clock on the dash read 12:38 AM and the Bolivians finally called it a night. Not so Hans, his one remaining Bolivian friend and Russ. After another discussion Plan ‘C’ was hatched and Han’s drove back up the track for more timber planks. After much digging, planning and ramping Han’s and Russ, inch by precarious inch, managed to drive troy out of the Mud and up onto the track proper, the clock read 01:48 AM and we were mobile again some 10 hours after sliding off the track and into a silty side drain, axle deep. We drove up to Hans’s house and parked to one side of the track and set up camp. Hans offered us both the use of his shower and after washing the mud and grime away we crawled into bed for a well-deserved sleep. The next morning we thanked Hans for his help and bid everyone goodbye, but not the Pom and Russ slingshot a few rocks onto his roof as a parting gesture.

imageWe very cautiously backtracked to the main road, being very careful not to deviate, even remotely, from the track. Muted morning daylight lit the jungle track and we saw how easily a small vehicle could stray and slide into the swampy washouts that ran on either side of the track. Previously unseen plank bridges, barely wide enough for us to drive on, spanned small deep creeks of mud and silt. Somehow we had managed to get it right with exception to the final crossing which took 10 hours to cross. We were certainly one, if not the largest, vehicle to ever drive on the track.

imageOnce we gained the main gate we had to bash our way back through the flooded & completely torn up main road  to town. Eventually we regained the paved road and then the main highway to Santa Cruz. The drive to Santa Cruz was hot and uneventful and we made great time to the city. The road to Santa Cruz was fast and straight  and soon we were inside the outer ring road and in the city proper. Not really sure where we were going to stay we tried to find a hotel with suitable and secure parking. Not having any luck we decided to try two camp grounds we had passed on the way in. Russ also spotted a Toyota workshop on the main road and we pulled in to see if they could replace Troy’s CV boots. A very helpful service adviser, who spoke excellent English, advised us that Bolivia will not repair a Toyota Tundra older than 2008 as they do not stock parts for the older models, that really sucked. But he did put me onto another workshop that Toyota contracts work out to and the location of a parts supplier that had everything we needed. Russ booked Troy in for new CV boots and we went in search of a camp for the night.

imageThe first place was resort style and didn’t want to know about us unless we booked an expensive room and ate at their expensive restaurant, no thanks amigo. The next place was 20 km from town and down a crap dirt road. We pulled into the Colpa Caranda camping and resort and were greeted by the Manager and his staff. We explained our requirement and were given the perfect spot nestled in among the trees in the best camp ground we have stayed in, ever. We had access to hot showers and the staff ran an electric lead to the camper, we paid a few dollars a night and had free run of the resort and grounds, including a lake complete with a resident capybara colony. We ate at the restaurant the first evening and made friends with Panchito the prickly pig or Pancho for short. We later found out that Pancho has a penchant for beer, the little bugger could easily knock back a dozen cans if you’d let him and not slur his grunt. Yet again we had another resort to ourselves, not another guest in sight so we explored the lakeside tracks watching grunting capybara’s leap into the water when we approached and spying toucan’s with their huge multi colored beaks flit through the canopy high above. Also thrown into the animal mix were a few roaming mares with fluffy inquisitive foals, we imagemanaged the odd scratch behind an ear or a dusty pat on the neck before they moved onto another patch of lush green grass. We spent one day in Santa Cruz replacing Troy’s CV boots and decided that the following morning we would make for the historical and Bolivian constitutional city of Sucre, some 600 km from Santa Cruz.

blocksWe were packed down and about to bid our farewells when the manager advised us that we couldn’t pass through Santa Cruz today because of road blockades. We had heard about these political blockades and seen them on the news but had not encountered them so far on our travels through Bolivia. Today was our first blockade experience and it sucked being at the mercy of angry locals blocking off the highway at multiple locations with rocks and burning tires, effectively isolating the entire city from all external traffic. As we soon learnt, every blockade has an alternative route around it and almost always on a crap Bolivian 4WD track that leads over a mountain and far away. We were given the directions for the alternative route to bypass Santa Cruz but decided to wait it out. At 1 PM the manager found us and announced that the blockade had finished and the highway was open, we had lost 5 hours of driving time but decided to head off anyway as there might be another blockade in the morning for any one of a thousand reasons.

imageNot long after leaving Colpa Caranda camp ground we were driving the outer ring road that skirts Santa Cruz and heading west to Samaipata and the southern boundary of Amboro NP. We decided to take the old highway to Samaipata, which was a 2 hour drive from camp and stay at there for the night. We we arrived we found it was not suitable and we pressed on. Anna had coordinates for a camp up in the hills near a nation park so we drove up another crappy Bolivian bush road/ track and eventually came to a very steep driveway that lead down to the valley far, far below. We had seen buildings in the same valley from another point on the road and hoped that was not our destination. But the sign said it was the track to the camp ground and Russ wasn’t keen to take troy down so steep a grade and he was even less enthusiastic about having to drive back up it. We were finding that a lot of tracks here were proving too greater a risk for us to drive on in Bolivia due to our size and height. Regardless of the grade Russ decide to run to the camp and ask if it was OK to camp up at the road. After 45 minutes of running Russ was at the valley floor and over the river that ran through it, but no nearer to the buildings we had seen previously. Light was fading fast and he decide to abandon his run and make back to Anna and Troy with all haste. There was no running up the hill, instead Russ walked up on rubber legs and with a pronounced wheeze, the last time Russ had done any kind of aerobic exercise was in 2002 when he played first grade for East’s. We won’t say how long it took Russ to get back to Troy but it was well dark when he arrived back and he looked a bit thinner. The executive decision was made to drive back down to the highway and find another camp for the night.

Are-You-Using-Marketing-to-Sabotage-Your-Business-Success-3-Danger-SignsMost overlanders will tell you ‘the golden rule is to never, ever drive at night’, and there is a fair bit of justification with that statement. But desperate times call for desperate measures and it can be done. We have driven Southern & Eastern Africa, Mexico, and Central & South America from dusk to dawn, on remote bush roads and highways and has never had a problem, near misses, yeah sure, but no more than in Sydney, L.A. or any other civilised country. Two of the most dangerous drives we’ve experienced is western Tanzania after dark and the other is on any outback road at dusk or dawn when Skippy, the 8 ft tall 90 kg Western Red Kangaroo, somehow feels obliged to hop toward headlights and make a grand entrance through the engine bay or windscreen at +120 km/h. There are always the obligatory roadside pedestrians at night such as black people, pigs, cows, goats, sheep, dogs, llama’s, alpaca’s, giraffes & perhaps the odd rhino, cyclist’s without reflectors, motorcyclists without reflectors or lights, vehicles without reflectors, lights, doors, bonnets or windows and let’s not forget the bricks, rocks, road craters and small trees left on the road to warn of a broken down vehicle ahead and the large rocks used as wheel chocks left behind by the now repaired broken down vehicle, also the head on trucks overtaking trucks, buses overtaking trucks, trucks and buses overtaking donkey and cart all at once or the generally poor road conditions. My all time favorite are the cars, trucks and buses with only one working offside headlight on high beam driving toward you down the center of the road. But, if your vehicle has a decent set of driving lights and you keep the speed down it can be done in relative safety, just don’t get lost and don’t stop, ever.

imageAfter gaining the highway we kept driving west and eventually came across a large road sign advertising a campground with an arrow pointing down a side road, we turned off, followed the road for a couple of hundred meters and made a river crossing before driving into a huge run down camping ground that hadn’t seen a camper in many years, perfect. After a futile door knocking on the only building with a light on we were ready to pick out a spot and set up for the night regardless when a set of headlights swung into the gate and made for us. Russ said hi to the owner of the ground, negotiated a fee and was given directions to our location for the night. We pulled up not far from the ablution block and made camp. It had turned into quite a big day for us and we were both tired, we also knew we had another another big day on the road tomorrow. The next morning Russ noticed fluid leaking from one of the new CV boots, it wasn’t too bad but it was still a leak all the same, we couldn’t do anything until Sucre anyway so we continued on the same highway until we reached the first turnoff to Sucre.

imageThe highway was still paved up until this point and it continued on ahead, the new highway was a rough unpaved road which would likely shake the hell out of our vehicle and camper as Bolivian roads tend to do. We had 2 options open to us at this point, option 1: take the shorter but rougher route or option: 2 take the better but longer route. We took option 2 to avoid smashing the shit out of our truck and camper. Little did we know that our better, but longer paved road turned into an unpaved road as well but it was still in better condition and easier on the truck than option: 1. We traversed huge mountains and passed by dramatic road side drops that can only be witnessed in Bolivia. In the distance we watched clouds cascade over the lip of a mountainous escarpment and float some 5000 ft. to the valley floor below like some heavenly waterfall, we passed ancient alpine forests with gigantic grandfather trees draped in moss and glistening with diamond droplets of moisture left over from the last passing cloud. As we descend off the mountains the cloud soaked bush thinned to pine forest and then to patchwork farms imageand crops of corn and wheat. The local indigenous Indians still managed their land with hoe, plow and sweat just as their ancestors had for centuries, nothing has changed except that solar cells & satellite dishes now point skyward from thatched roofs and mud brick walls.

imageEventually we did regain the paved highway and arrived at the next intersection that will take us to Sucre. We make the turn and drive a further 15 km and into the neat little village of Totora, our overnight stop. We view a local hotel and decide that it’s safe to camp under a street light in front of the Municipal Offices. We pop the camper roof and set up for the night. The locals don’t know what to make of us, they stare and talk among themselves but never approach the camper and never touch it. We find a local restaurant for dinner and say hola to the local Policia who assure us that we’re OK where we are, they have already seen us and we feel as secure as you can on a street. Russ will still sleep with one eye and one ear open. After dinner we explore the small town and make our way to the main square. A few of the shops have closed but most are still open, this is a rural town and the tienda’s (shops) are geared up for the farmers and sell everything from bread and eggs to fertiliser and farming implements. We walk into a brightly lit tienda and buy a tray of eggs, the señora (lady) asks why Russ is purchasing so many eggs and he tells her they are ‘to be cooked and eaten’ (para ser cocinado y comido), surprised she asks where he is going to cook them to which he replies “en mi cocina señora” (in my kitchen ma’am) we don’t know what she says next but we think it went something like this; ‘where is that gringo idiot going to get a kitchen from? He’s clearly not from around here and more to the point does he even know how to cook an egg’.

imageOur street camp happens to be on the main thoroughfare through the town which meant that every bus, truck, car and donkey drawn cart had to pass by us. Russ brought in the back step to prevent people from stepping up to the camper door, it’s not that easy for us to step up without the step and for a short arsed Bolivian, not a chance as was proven at check points. We watched a movie before crawling into our super comfy bed and hunkered down for a well-deserved sleep. Trucks laden with goods parked up next to us during the night and overnight buses stopped briefly. It was a noisy night with the constant traffic but we both slept pretty well regardless. The next morning the sun was bright and the air chilly, Anna ‘cooked the man some eggs’ and we ate breakfast. Soon after we packed down and left our cosy but noisy street camp, we hadn’t yet left the town when Russ saw an elderly lady trying very hard to place a tin star on a hook above her doorway, she was 3’6” in height, foot to fingertip, and the hook was about 7’ high under the eve. Russ pulled over and got out, said good morning and asked if he could help her hang the star, delighted, the old lady handed over the battered Christmas star and Russ hung it over her door. We were invited in for tea and something to eat but unfortunately we did not have time and still had a reasonable distance to travel. Russ did ask permission to photograph her and with great reluctance she agreed. He took a photo and then we made tracks for Sucre.

imageBolivia does have some strange structures that do seem out of place considering the location in which they are set. During our drive on one particular rough and remote section of highway/ unpaved road at best a very modern and well-constructed bridge appeared out of the bush spanning a river at the bottom of a deep gorge. We were used to crossing bridges with exposed and rusting reinforcing steel and large holes through the deck or both so we were surprised to see this one in the butt end of nowhere.

imageAs we neared Sucre we could see in the distance the last climb up an escarpment and into the city, that was when Russ noticed the long line of parked trucks snaking from top to bottom, this spelt only one thing, a blockade. We drove to the Policia checkpoint at the bottom of the escarpment and spoke to the duty officer who told us in English ‘the blockade will finish tomorrow morning, but there is another way in if you have a 4WD’. No thanks mate, we will wait until tomorrow. There was a service station at the bottom and we asked if we could stop there, the place was slowly filling up with trucks and cars, the buses still trundled past and up to the blockaded section of road to drop off passengers who then walk past the blockade, catch another bus on the other side and continue on into Sucre. Another night in another service station didn’t sound very nice so we back tracked to a few riverside locations we had seen from the road that might make a good overnight stop.

imageThirty five minutes later we drove into a small town where we had seen people waiting for the ‘bus that never comes’. Russ got out and had a chat to them and an older lady who was a nun and spoke great English said we could stay at her house for the night. Anna moved over and she hopped in and we drove to her house. The house was amazing with a huge section of land and a pool that overlooked farm paddocks and the river in the distant. The nun lived alone but had a young girl stay with her in the evenings for company. Anna offered to cook dinner for everyone that night and asked if a beef Rogan Josh curry would be OK, the nun loved the sound of the idea but wasn’t sure if the young girl and her sister would like it, they were about to find out. The curry was fabulous and the nun loved it, Anna made as mild a curry as she could but it’s still a curry and by nature it’s a spicy dish. The girls ate a fair amount but in the end it was too spicy for them having never tasted curry before this, ever. Anna made a meal pack from the left overs to gave it to the girl’s mother and father to  taste, we suspected that they have never eaten curry either.

imageWe were up early the next morning and after our thanks and farewells we made for Sucre. Not too far down the road Russ heard a not so good screech, crunch and then rubbing sound that changed in pitch with the road speed, he got out for a look and saw fluid on the inside of the rear drivers side tire, the fluid was oil which meant a rear bearing and seal, damn,  but we could still drive and Russ monitored it, the CV boot leak had gotten worse so Russ dumped 500 ml of transmission fluid into the front differential, it would last until Sucre, he hoped. We reached the escarpment and drove past the rocks and burnt out tires that were yesterday’s blockade. The road took us through the industrial section and Russ saw a Toyota Parts tienda and stopped for a chat, the owner knew a mechanic and could get the parts that he needed. We drove to the mechanic who was perched on the side of the hill which is a far cry from the Toyota workshops with air-conditioning, coffee machines, internet and slinky sales chic’s strutting around in smart skirts, lip stick and high heels.

imageRuss booked in for the next morning and we made for the campground that every overlanding gringo stays at when in Sucre. We found our way to the gated campground in the center of the city and squeezed in with 3 other overland vehicles. The camp ground was more of a back yard that had a small workshop in the front and a kitchen & ablution facilities at the rear. At a pinch and with some very tight maneuvering another two 4WD vehicles might fit in, just. We parked in the driveway effectively blocking everyone else in which didn’t matter because nobody was interested in driving anywhere anyway. The blockades had spooked everyone and some had been trapped here for weeks. The main square was a few blocks from the campground so we set off for an explore. The lonely plant said that Sucre was a beautiful colonial city that rivals any other in the Americas, as far as colonial cities are concerned it was pretty ordinary, we had passed through far better on our way down and agreed we wouldn’t waste too much time here. The next morning we had the rear bearing repaired and as it turn out that the previous mechanic in Santa Cruz had left a sliver of metal inside the front diff when the CV boots were being replaced, the metal sliver made its way to the seal causing the leak, over time when in 4WD (which we always engage on unsealed roads) the leak had gotten worse to the point of a steady flow . After the repair was finished we made for camp and another explore of Sucre. 

realOur next destination was Uyuni or more specifically the Sal de Uyuni, the highest & largest salt flat on earth and a 360 km drive south east of Sucre. Not surprisingly another blockade was in place since arriving in Sucre and we were stuck, again, or were we? We did learn that blockades are not really enforced during the night between 10:30 PM and 06:00 AM because, A: Its cold and B: it’s boring and more comfortable to be asleep in your bed at night. We also learnt that all blockades are suspended on Friday nights and are never enforced over the weekends so Bolivians can attend the very important football matches being played all around the country, but, come 6 AM on Monday morning it is game on again, lets start burning tires. On Friday afternoon we decided on a night trip with an over-nighter in Potosi, the home of Bolivian silver mining and home to Potosi Real FC, Russ’s adopted favorite football club. We readied Troy for travel, restocked the pantry, polished the headlights and prepared for the night run to Potosi, some 2-3 hours away. Another haggling game at the gas station negotiated a fair-ish price at the pump and we fueled up, ready to go. We reached the first blockade expecting the worst but instead saw that the rock’s and tires had been pushed to the side and not a soul was in sight, obviously the Sucre FC team bus had passed through during the afternoon, it was probably on it’s way to play Potosi Real. Viva Potosi Real!

busWith the last of the fading light we were making great time but Russ noticed the complete absence of oncoming traffic, this wasn’t all bad, it did signal that a blockade was in force at Potosi but it also meant that we had the road to ourselves, sorry I meant ourselves and any local wild Llama’s we might meet on the way. The highway was in great condition and the lack of other vehicles on the road made driving easy and when we were a hour or so from Potosi we encountered the first of a long line of on coming buses heading in the opposite direction, woohoo, the Potosi blockade had been suspended for the weekend footy. Next stop Potosi.

Check out The German, a nun and a Prickly Pig blog pics here:

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 :