Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and Samaipata

The tossing of a coin to choose our next destination was admittedly not the most scientific way of moving forward. And with hindsight we wish the coin had landed on the other side.

The journey to Cochabamba was at night and the bus wasn’t the greatest. When it comes to travelling at night we have learnt that it is very hard to get decent sleep, especially when the bus doesn’t even have a toilet. Ten hours is a long time to hold on.

We arrived in Cochabamba with no hostel booked but fortunately our first choice had a room. During the journey we had read up on Cochabamba and discovered that it is famous for excellent food and good tours to the surrounding forests and mountains. Our first attempts to track down tour companies fell flat on its face given that it was Saturday afternoon and presumably everybody was asleep.

Then we took a really boring tour of a nunnery. I will admit that the building was pretty impressive and the view over the city was worth the climb, but in the grand scheme of things nunneries don’t compare to snow capped mountains, penguins and big cheap juicy steaks.

The next day was Sunday so again nothing was open so we decided to move on the next morning. Then we went to the cinema.

The food of Cochabamba warrants a mention though. We ate at an excellent Iranian Kebab Restaurant and we also visited one of the best steak restaurants we have discovered so far. We also sampled some local Bolivian cuisine too which was mostly excellent and much more friendly on our budget. And best of all we discovered Bolivia’s answer to Fanny Ice Cream of Vietnam in the form of Dumbo’s…a fast food and ice cream eatery complete with a kids indoor playground. My ice cream addiction has now reached a critical point.

Our next destination took some deciding. We knew we either wanted to go to Santa Cruz (the other capital city), Rurrenabaque down in the Amazon basin, or neither. The important factor was our supply of anti-malarial drugs. We only had enough to visit one more malarial area. We decided upon Santa Cruz as we could get there by road, rather than the perilous plane ride needed to get to Rurrenabaque.

Santa Cruz lies at low altitude on the edge of the Amazon and to get there we had to undertake another long journey of 10 hours or so. We bought tickets with one bus company but when we arrived we were shunted to another bus. Given as we had no real choice we climbed on board and found ourselves on a crowded local type bus. Children slept in the aisles, strange smells wafted past us and one woman had an animal in a cardboard box. It may have been a bird but we weren’t sure. At every stop hawkers climbed on board selling meals, drinks and one guy was even selling ice cream out of a large polystyrene crate.

There was only 3 plus points to this journey. Firstly, we were the only non-Bolivians on board so we felt like proper backpackers – for some reason finding ourselves in such a situation is rather satisfying, despite the loack of air conditioning, hygene standards and anything that remotely seems like a timetable. Secondly, when we stopped at a small town I had the second best Coke of my life. And thirdly we bought lollipops for all the kids on board which went down well.

(the random stop and the scene of the 2nd best Coke of all time)

We arrived in Santa Cruz in the early evening and made a sensible decision to stay somewhere cheap. £5 per night for a room is undoubtedly cheap. That said we felt like we got our moneys worth. Creaking metal framed beds complete with sagging 1 inch thick mattresses and what looked like blood stains on the wall completed the look.

But we weren’t in Santa Cruz for the accommodation. We had come to take a day tour into the jungle. But we very soon discovered that the costs of these tours was excessive, so we decided instead to go to Samaipata the next day and arrange a tour from there.

In the meantime we explored the city of Santa Cruz, which we found to be relaxing and pleasant. We even discovered an Irish bar that had no Guinness (or Gwoooeeenes according to the barman) despite the bar mats, towels and posters.

(the main Plaza in Santa Cruz)

(our prison cell hostel room in Santa Cruz)

The next day we made our way to a random street corner where we could catch a taxi to Samaipata and begun negotiations with a taxi driver. We soon realised that he wouldn’t leave until he had five passengers, although we weren’t quite sure where the fifth passenger was expected to sit. So we sat and waited and soon enough two locals arrived with a car windscreen. This was strapped to the roof and I decided to just pay for three seats and we set off.

On the way we witnessed the aftermath of a horrendous traffic accident. As far as I could tell a lorry had swerved into oncoming traffic and a car had been smashed to pieces. We could see dead bodies lying in the road and quickly looked away. The Bolivians in the car gave a commentary though and three young children had sadly died. We were all very quiet for the rest of the journey as we thought about the terrible accident. Seat belts are not a legal requirement in Bolivia (we had none in the back of the taxi) and additionally drink driving is a real problem too.

The rest of the journey passed without incident aside from a fifth passenger climbing into the back of the (estate) car and sitting among our bags. I didn’t bother to ask if I got my money back for the fifth seat – shared taxis are a system best left well alone.

(the stunning scenery on the way to Samaipata, as viewed from a rapidly moving overloaded taxi)

I was completely unaware of what to expect at Samaipata as Claire had done the research but the last 90 minutes of the journey were visually impressive. The road wound its way through gorges as it followed a river upstream. Around us forest clung to steep hillsides and mountains.

Upon arrival we were completely taken by Samaipata with its dusty streets and relaxing ambience. Which was a shame really as it was bank holiday weekend and accommodation was hard to come by. We hadn’t realised Samaipata was such a popular destination for holidaying Bolivians. The first place we tried suggested we leave. Then a Canadian couple strolled past and suggested we try their hostel. Luckily they could put us up for one night only.

As we needed to stay longer we began a tour of every hotel and hostel. The first had a room with a large single bed. Foolishly we decided to look elsewhere….you can see where this is going can’t you!

After a few more negatives we stumbled across a small home-stay with 3 empty rooms. At first we thought we had struck lucky. The owner spoke English and commanded her son (in his mid forties) to show us a room. He complained in the style of a disconsolate teenager which prompted his mother to tell us he was mentally unstable. The room looked nice enough but upon returning to the kitchen we became unwilling participants in the most random and disturbing conversation of our trip. The woman told us she used to be a lawyer but had received a bang on the head and had to retire. Then she told us she had moved from Rio in Brazil due to all the machine gun fire. Her next home was in Santa Cruz but apparently the machine gun fire there was too much for her also. Then she told us the people of Santa Cruz were coming to Samaipata for the weekend before pulling a face of complete terror. Presumably they were bringing their automatic weapons.

At this point we had both made the decision to run away as politely as possible. We tried to make polite excuses but she repeatedly demanded a decision. After another 30 seconds of politely listening to her I butted in with a poor excuse for leaving and we legged it.

The remainder of the accommodation was taken so we returned to the place with the single bed only to discover that some French people had swiped the room from under our noses moments earlier.

Dejected we decided to take one final stroll to see if we could get lucky. A European chap sitting in the street on a stall spotted us and invited us into his shop for some advice. He then proceeded to talk both to us and himself and we learnt that his family had moved back to Europe, leaving him behind. The reasons for this then started to become clear. He made sure to explain that he most certainly never offers his spare room to anybody. Then he debated this with himself and decided he could make an exception. He seemed a decent chap (aside from the talking to himself) and we thought our luck had turned, but then he announced “my house could do with some fresh blood” and explained that the house was in the middle of nowhere. For the second time that afternoon we made crap excuses and legged it.

At this point we gave up and decided to spent the evening in Samaipata before moving on. The town was pleasant and we had a nice meal before strolling round the small street stalls that had been set up for the bank holiday weekend. I managed to win 50p by throwing darts at balloons before before losing it all on some other game that involved chucking coins at the floor.

We slept well and the next day we set off back to the machine gun hotbed that is Santa Cruz. Our plan was to either go back to Cochabamba or just journey the whole way to La Paz. The Bolivian taxi driver we found was excellent. He had seat belts and he used them. On the way back we came across a lorry which had swerved off the road before hitting a tree which had stopped it from plunging into the ravine some 50 metres below. The driver of the lorry chatted to our driver and as we drove off our driver indicated to me that the guy had been drinking. Judging by the children and women milling around I suspect they were all in the back of the lorry at the time.

Upon arrival back in Santa Cruz we immediately headed to the bus station and bought tickets for La Paz. After killing a few hours in Santa Cruz we set off on the 18 hour journey to the highest capital city in the world. The journey would involve a climb of over 3,000m in altitude.

Despite some initial concerns our bus was decent enough and it even had a toilet. After a couple of hours we stopped at a “restaurant” in the middle of nowhere which served rice and sausage things, or gruel (rice, meat and lots of water) for £1 a plate. I opted for just rice and Claire had an ice lolly.

We set off again and Face Off was selected for our viewing pleasure. Dubbed in Spanish and with no subtitles it soon became apparent that Face Off is so basic that the words aren’t necessary.

The first part of the journey was unpleasantly hot. Sweat ran down my face uncontrollably, mainly because our window was screwed shut. However as we climbed into the Andes the temperature dropped drastically and by 2am we were huddled under our sleeping bag and two blankets.

We arrived in La Paz at 8am to brilliant sunshine as we gazed upon what is most definitely one of the most impressively located cities in the world. And no headache despite the altitude!


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Nice story and photos. Shame about the lack of rooms. Usually something always turns up. And I would have hated to see those dead bodies in the lorry smash up. Not my idea of a good travel experience!

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