Tag Archives: Bolivia

Home to home;

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It’s been 8 weeks and it’s time to go home.

Although if the saying “home is where the heart is” is true, then ‘home’ is a pretty amalgamous concept since I’ve certainly left my heart in several places around the world. Singapore, of course, will always be the primero. New York, too, for its infinite possibilities, and now, Arequipa, for its humbling ways and the lesson that simple contentment still exists in this capitalistic world.

I’m not sure if I’ve attained “traveller” (and not “tourist”) status, but I think that at the very least, I’ve become more environmentally- and culturally-sensitive. I’ve learnt to appreciate the luxury of a hot shower and of having money in my pocket. I’ve realized that that tourism can be detrimental to community psyche even if the people need or want it, and I’ve realized that I’m as much a bane to other tourists as they are to me. We all seek beauty and novelty, but we also seek solitude in that beauty. It’s the selfishness of travel and the conundrum of the tourism industry.

Am also still amazed by the multitude of people that we’ve met along the way, and of the lessons we’ve learnt from them- on life, filial piety, and definitely, definitely humility. Also very grateful for my best travel partner, who above all PMS-induced tantrums, tolerated my unbelievably smelly feet :X

And now in limbo from home to home- how blessed! (:

If I had all the time (and guts)…

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I would travel Southwestern Bolivia on a mule.

My mule (whom I would call ‘Muse’) and I would probably start off from the town of Uyuni. We’d trot slowly as the hordes of 4WDs zoom past us and we’d be alone to appreciate the emptiness of the salt flats. We would hear the rhythmic crunch of the salt under Muse’s hooves, and see where the volcanoes define the horizon’s edge. There is something strangely calming about being a tiny speck of a person (or animal) amidst that great expanse of blankness.

We would probably take a day, instead of 2 hours, to reach Isla Incahuasi, an island that sprouts hundreds of phallic-shaped cactuses. By then, all the tour groups would have left. I would then hike up to the top of the island and take in my surroundings. (Ideally by this time I should have learnt how to paint as well. Cameras are amazing, but they can’t capture the way cacti glow in the sunlight, or the way the sunsets here are a special kind of purplish-pink.) I would spend an hour or so painting the view before me; it shouldn’t be too hard since everything is white. Then I would pitch my tent on the salt flat (not sure if this is legal actually), and equipped with the warmest sleeping bag and wind-resistant tent, I would wait for the howling winds to sweep salt onto my tent. Come nightfall, I would stick my head out of the tent and watch the Milky Way stretch across the sky, accompanied by an infinite number of twinkling stars. And if I’m as lucky as I’ve been, I would wait eagerly for the shooting stars to streak across the sky, and wish each time for a life as good as this.

Isla Incahuasi

Muse and I would probably spend about a month making our way across the Altiplano and the Atacama Desert. We will pass by many volcanoes on the way, and if I’m feeling fit enough, I might be encouraged to climb one. We will laugh at all the tourists bouncing uncomfortably in their 4WDs (although we would not be so pleased with the clouds of dust they generate). We would trot past fantastical lava formations, past colourful volcanoes with multiple craters, and on lucky days, we will arrive at lagoons filled with flamingos. We will be amazed at how these haughty, fragile-looking creatures can survive in such a desolate and harsh environment and marvel at the way they strut across the frozen lagoon like models on a runway. Muse would also have a lot of time to graze as I attempt to paint these beautiful creatures in flight. On our journey, Muse would also make a lot of new friends with the wandering Andean foxes, llamas and vicuynas. They seem to be pretty friendly and curious creatures.

Flamingos flourishing in the smelly sulfuric lagoon.

Volcano of Seven Colours; The yellow parts mark where the sulphur from the different craters are.

Crazy geyser activity; The lava is only 700m below surface!

It would be an extremely difficult journey given the crazily cold climate and lack of food or water. And knowing me, we will definitely get lost at some point. But then again, being lost is a concept that can only exist when you have a specific destination and time-frame. And since I would have all the time in the world, the only thing I could really be lost in is the beauty of my surroundings.

Parque Toro Toro: Land Before Time

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Our joyride!

As with all Bolivian journeys, getting there is half the adventure. We were a little anxious about our bus from Cochabamba to Toro Toro since we´d received conflicting information about the location and timing of the bus ride from everyone. We ended up getting our tickets from Trans Toro Toro at Av. Republica and Av. Barrientos for the 6:30pm bus.

6:30 pm: Our bus is a real character. It looks like it´s about 10 years overdue for refurbishment. The seats are almost completely ripped at the seams and look like they are ideal nesting habitats for mice and roaches. The only available light on the bus are 4 tiny, exposed bulbs. Unsurprisingly, the bus is overbooked and there are about 5 people standing on the aisle, each with a huge bundle of something.

7:00pm: The bus has finally left. WB and I are sitting in the last row and as a result every bump and rattle is experienced manifold. It´s like being on an OSIM uGallop gone awry. I can´t even dig my nose without the fear of jabbing my finger all the way into my nostril. The brakes also have a gasping hollow screech.

8:30pm: WB just saw a sign that said “92 km a Cochabamba”. We´re very happy entertaining ourselves with the thought that this journey is going to end in 2 hours at the speed this bus is travelling.

11:40pm: The bus stopped abruptly to let a whole bunch of villagers get off. People are moving all sorts of barang down, including televisions. My legs are beginning to feel numb. Economy class syndrome?

12:30 am: We are still driving uphill with no apparent end in sight. I have two people snoozing on my shoulders and I need to poop very urgently. With fewer people on the bus, the ride is even bumpier.

12:45 am: Suddenly I can spot a dozen glowing lights in the distance.  A mirage? It looks so inviting.

12:49 am: Not a mirage!! We´ve finally arrived. Thank God Felix from Villa Etelvina (where we´re staying) is still waiting for us at the bus stop; the bus driver and a villager had very convincingly pointed us in the opposite direction when we didn´t see Felix at first. Hmm.

Umajalanta Trek

We woke up early on Saturday to look for a guide (Bs 100/day) at the Tourist Information office. Toro Toro is tiny- there are three main streets, one school, and two churches. At the office, we´re really lucky to be just in time to join a group of 4 people who are headed on a trek to the Umajalanta cave, which is 6.5km away from the town. (We´re also really lucky that the other people in our group can speak both Spanish and English and hence can help us translate! There are no English-speaking guides here.)

Parque Tor0 Toro would probably be every geog- lover´s paradise. The volcanic eruptions of yesteryear and the active seismic activity have resulted in the formation of hills that look like they have been dramatically and abruptly sliced in half. As it is the dry season now, the rivers are completely parched and the exposed sedimentation is pretty spectacular. This area also used to be home to dinsosaurs. There is a theory that the multitude of dinosaur tracks found here were made when the dinosaurs were fleeing a volcanic eruption, after which the lava swept over the clay and resulted in the fossilized footprints.

Mr Moo looking for some water in the parched river.

Tracks of the Carnosauria.. which I suspect is the Spanish term for any carnivorous dino.

We finally arrived at the cave after hiking for about 3 hours. The trail is pretty moderate (quite a lot of walking uphill and some nasty thorny paths) and we saw (and heard) a lot of sheep and blur-looking mules along the way. Our descent in the cave was pretty exciting. Our guide had to hook up his rope several times for us to rappel down (not having helmets also made it pretty exciting) and there was a lot of heaving, climbing and sliding involved. But the best part was when we had to go completely flat on our bellies so as to crawl through the tunnels. We Asians got the last laugh then! Heehee. There were also some amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations; so old they´ve melded together to form colums in the cave. Some of the stalactites were also slightly hollow and produced music when we tapped on them. At the end of our descent, we also came to a pool of water with tons of white blind fish. It was pretty funny how they kept bumping into each other while swimming around.

They look more blur than me, no?

Fantastical cave columns!

Literally stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Vergel Trek

We met up with our group and guide again the next day to do the ´classic´ Vergel trek, which is delightfully only 8km long. The scenery wasn´t quite as stunning as the day before, although we did get to walk along a dried river bed for about 1km and see the internal structure of what would be a waterfall in the rainy season. We also saw humongous footprints belonging to the Brontosauras today; they´re so big a baby (or WB now that he has lost so much weight) would fit pretty nicely in them. We also trekked down the canyon (466 steps!) to the falls of El Vergel, a lush oasis in this arid, arid land. On the way back, Pablo brought us to see more dinosaur footprints. There were several criss-crossing tracks made by both the herbivores and carnivores. Very cool (:

Rainy season: Waterfall. Dry season: Rock theater where theatrical performances are held!

Massive footprint of the Brontosaurus!

**We were supposed to go to Potosi after but there is a bloqueo on all roads leading there so we´re in Oruro now, waiting to head to the Uyuni salt flats tonight. We made this last minute decision at the bus station last night and arrived in Oruro at 2am last night, without a hostel to stay. This city is also freaking cold compared to Cochabamba. Anyway, there is also a bloqueo on the atas train to Uyuni so now we have to take the scary cold bus. Sian.

Pictures tomorrow when I can get wifi! The internet cafe here is pretty crappy.

Cochabamba: Raw Bolivia

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There are virtually no tourists in this city, which is slightly surprising since it holds the largest statue of Christ in the world. Yup, it’s 44cm taller than Christ the Redeemer in Brazil. WB and I are here because it’s the only way we can get to Parque Toro Toro to check out the dinosaur footprints and explore some caves.

On our first day we had pretty good vibes of the city. Even though we must be the only asians around, we weren’t attracting that much attention and the people here don’t seem as likely to spit on us as they do in La Paz.

Cochabamba is also somewhat like the food and market central of Bolivia; the Cochabambinos are fiercely proud of their food, and there are huge markets here that are reminiscient of Bangkok’s Chatchuchak.

This morning we were on a taxi to this street where we could supposedly find our bus tickets to Toro Toro. Halfway through our driver braked suddenly and made a U-turn. “Bloque! No paso!” The only way to get to our destination was to make a detour around the lake ( and pay an extra Bs/8). Not having much of a choice, we agreed. When we finally finishes touring the lake, we saw a group of men holding large sticks and shouting as they walked down the middle of the road. “Muy malo gente (very bad people),” our taxi driver shook his head and muttered. A second later one of the rioters began gesturing and shouting at him in rapid Spanish. He nodded hurriedly and told us to get off quickly and pointed us in the direction we were to go.

These men had big sticks, loud voices and they were not afraid to use either. They stood in the middle of the road and gestured angrily at the cars, and at one point yanked a cab driver out of his vehicle and began hitting his arm with a stick. An elderly lady we were walking by went pale with fright. “Es malo! Mi dios mi dios! (It’s bad! My god my god!)” Luckily the driver managed to scramble back in quickly enough but they continued to whack the back of his vehicle. It was pretty terrifying. WB and I tried to be a unobtrusive as possible and prayed that they had no grievances against tourists.

The taxis here are a recipe for adventure. Our taxi driver from the bus station back to the hostel hit the back of a motorcycle and the cyclist stumbled a little but was generally unharmed. No words, numbers, or IDs were exchanged- they looked hard at each other for a moment, each inspected their vehicle, and then went on their way.

Because of the strike, we’re not even sure if our bus to Toro Toro will still be running this evening. Hopefully the situation will be better in a few hours. Going off the gringo trail can be exciting and refreshing, but it sure as hell is scary too.

La Paz

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The frenetic capital of Bolivia.

The highest capital in the world is leaving me breathless, literally more than figuratively. Built on a canyon, the steepness of the roads here can rival those of San Francisco, and I find myself gasping for air within 5 mins of walking uphill.

It reminds me a lot of Athens actually- grubby, smokey, kinda sketchy. But the people here are 2748383737 times nicer. Although WB and I walk in constant fear of being spit on- apparently there’s a popular scam here where people spit on you and while you’re fumbling about in rage, they steal your money :/ WB told me to just smile and thank whoever spits on me.

There’s a lot of Japanese and Thai food here though! Which is a very nice change from eating soup and potatoes for the past few days when we were on the islands of Lake Titicaca. We’ve realized that we’ve both lost a considerable amount of weight- scary for WB since he’s already so skinny, somewhat good for me cos I’ve a lot to lose, but a little disappointing because my face is still as round as ever :/ I’ve also been experiencing a strange sensation when it’s sweltering hot: it feels like there are lots of little bubbles bursting on my skin although there’s nothing actually there. I’d like to think it’s my cellulite imploding but I don’t want to be too hopeful! If anyone knows what that sensation entails, please tell me!

Something fascinating about La Paz: their witch market. The tradition here is somewhat like at Chinese funerals; they burn miniature versions of the things they want e.g. wax cars, houses, money etc. But somehow dried llama foetuses also come into the picture as offerings to Pachamama. It’s quite disconcerting to see rows of these hanging shrivelled creatures; some found frozen from the cold, others dug out from their mother’s womb.

Dizzying array of concoctions and potions for every possible ailment.

For all the 'riches' you could possibly want in life.

Anyone fancies a souvenir?

We’re headed to Cochabamba tomorrow! Hopefully to climb some caves and walk in dinosaur tracks (: