Into the jungle, an overland journey from La Paz to Rurrenabaque

On the Rio Beni

There are two practical ways to get from La Paz to Rurrenabaque in the jungle. You can fly which takes about 40 minutes or, if you’re crazy, you can take a bus which takes about 20 hours depending on the weather. If you’re really crazy, there’s a third option by road and river which takes 4 days. I decided on the really crazy route. But on the second day, when clouds of mosquitoes descended on the campsite, I began to have second thoughts.

All aboard the Commander bus
The adventure began at the bus station in La Paz. I had organised the expedition through Deep Rainforest and Augusto, the agency representative, was busy buying tickets for me and my travelling companions for a bus which would take us from the altiplano to Guanay, a river port thousands of metres down in the Yungas, the lowlands. Slightly alarmingly, the bus was painted with army motifs, including a bare-chested soldier clutching a machine gun. But we weren’t going to war, we were about to travel along stomach-churning roads, with spectacular views, but terrifying drops into chasms below.
The descent to Coroico
Augusto told us we probably wouldn’t be having any hot food and insisted on buying what he called a survival kit, which basically consisted of bags of nuts, crisps and junk food. In fact we didn’t leave for over an hour. Vendors of much more delicious food, such as empanadas, were doing a brisk trade. Less so the man with a clutch of brightly-coloured brooms which are not really must- have items when you’re about to embark on a long distance bus journey. 

The road to Guanay
Coroico is a town which stands halfway along the route. The old road, quaintly known as the Death Road, is now closed and used only by agencies who guide intrepid (foolhardy?) cyclists down to Coroico. I was happy we would be taking the new road. Only I soon discovered this is probably now the second most dangerous road in the world. We began by ascending above the clouds with panpipe music blaring appropriately out of the crackly speakers, past misty high altitude lakes and llamas, then we began our descent. As the clouds disappeared above us, the vegetation became more luxuriant and the temperature started to rise. Small farms clung to the precipitous hillsides.
Gold prospectors along the Rio Kaka

Beyond Coroico the condition of the road worsened as we plunged down a huge valley right to the floor, crossed a rickety bridge and began the ascent up the other side. I looked out of the window and was horrified as I saw the crazy driver was on the wrong side of the road. But then I realised that the lane direction was reversed to help safety. Since the drop was on the left, vehicles drove on the left so that the driver was seated as close to the edge as possible. When the gap between the bus and cliff is literally centimetres, this is obviously vital! 

En route
Night had fallen when we arrived safely in Guanay. Our local, guide, Achilles, took us to a run down and grimy hostel catering for the local miners. We were all too tired to do much more than go to sleep and prepare ourselves for the river adventure that lay ahead the next day. 

After breakfast by the river, during which a local mining engineer chatted to us enthusiastically about the gold prospects along the banks, we finally set off with Achilles, a boat driver, and another helper whom Achilles called simply Loco (Crazy Guy). There was a lot of digging along the river and many men prospecting. It had the weird feel of the American West during the Gold Rush. We stopped for lunch in the mining town of Mayaya, then pushed on to pitch our tents above the river just outside the Parque Nacional Madidi. It was then that, as soon as the boat stopped moving, the swarms of mosquitoes appeared, as if out of nowhere, buzzing around our ears and heads. We sprayed the repellent around as if it were insecticide.  

Lunch stop in Mayaya
The next day we stopped off at some glorious clear waterfalls for a refreshing shower and lunched on fresh surubi fish which the boat crew had caught the previous evening. We continued on our way past dense jungle and no other tourists. This was remote, virgin rainforest that you cannot see on trips out of Rurrenabaque. It’s too difficult to spot animals, but the scenery is impressive and it was superbly relaxing just sitting on the boat, watching the jungle glide by and enjoying the peace and quiet. 

The cliff where macaws nest
On the second night we camped at an idyllic spot opposite a huge cliff where macaws nested. Idyllic, that is, until the mosquitoes swarmed in again as dusk set in. We retreated to our tents and refused to emerge until daylight. The next day we visited a local community an hour’s walk away into the jungle. We met a couple and their 9 children. Conditions were extremely basic, but there was a school.

Macaws
We had lunch on the boat just before reaching the small town of Rurrenabque. It was an epic trip and we arrived happy that we’d done it, but happy we had now arrived and just a little self-satisfied that we had not taken the easy flying option. It’s a great way to get here, but one thing is for sure, I’ll be flying back to La Paz. 

The sound of silence in Sajama National Park, Bolivia

 

Volcan Sajama
 
The last light of the day glistened on the ice-capped peaks of the surrounding volcanoes and, as the sun dropped quickly out of view, the temperature plummeted alarmingly fast. The altiplano village of Sajama in Bolivia stands at 4200m above sea level. At this altitude it’s freezing cold at night and the air is thin and in short supply. But none of that seemed to worry the players in a five a side football match who were running around in shorts. I was out of breath just trying to pull my socks on. The crowd of supporters looked smugly warm in their layers of alpaca shawls and rugs, while my nose went red and my feet seemed to go dead in my shoes.

 

The twin volcanoes
 
The match, somewhat oddly, was accompanied by a small band of musicians, drums crashing, cymbals clashing and horns doing whatever horns do. I’d arrived that afternoon on the long haul by bus up from Arica on the Chilean coast. The village is just a small collection of primitive adobe thatched houses and it’s hard to tell which are the streets and which are people’s yards. After dinner I was in bed by 8.30 trying to get warm under heavy layers of alpaca blankets. My traditional adobe hut seemed designed to trap the cold in.

 

Sajama National Park
 
Sajama is in fact also the name of the national park which is close to the Chilean border and is still pretty much off the beaten track. It’s quite difficult to get to and lodgings are basic, plus, did I say how cold it gets? After three nights I still couldn’t get used to it, but the sublime scenery more than compensated.

 

Rush hour heading out of Sajama
 
On the first day I walked along the dirt track heading north out of town to some natural hot springs. To the right was Volcan Sajama and to the left a large plain with many alpaca (although they could have been llamas, I still can’t tell the difference) and behind that the twin volcanoes of Parinacota and Pomerata, both towering over 6000 metres. The sun was fierce during the day and the altitude made each step hard-going, so after six hours I was glad to get back to the hostel. But then the sun went down, and, did I tell you how cold it gets?

 

Church in Sajama
 
I felt more acclimatised on the second day and walked west of town past the little stone church and across the plain towards the twin volcanoes. After about an hour I entered a beautiful valley and a few miles further on I came across the geysers. I stepped gingerly between them, trying to be as sure-footed as the alpacas (or llamas). The waters bubbled, steam rose and the edges of the holes glimmered red and orange.

 

Geysers
 
On both days trekking what struck me the most was the wonderful sound of silence. It felt so far from anywhere and I saw only a few other determined tourists. I spent 3 nights there and would like to have stayed longer, but the cold was getting to me. Apart from having been overawed by the landscape, I also came away with a huge admiration for the people who live with such extremes of temperatures and altitude. It’s a harsh life and I was lucky that I could just dip in and out.

  

Monsieur Eiffel’s early work and the nitrate boom in Arica and Iquique, Chile

Sea lions waiting for lunch at the port in Arica

Iquique in northern Chile was at the centre of the nitrate boom in the 19th century and many Europeans including English and Germans made their fortune here. Apparently, this city was so decadent in its time that it is alleged more champagne was drunk per capita than anywhere else in the world. Interesting to know that Brits getting pissed abroad didn’t just start in Ibiza in the 1970s. Nitrate was heavily sought after as a fertiliser in Europe and the USA until Germany stopped buying during World War One and then developed a synthetic version. After that the boom years were over. 

Houses on Baquedano, Iquique

I have to admit I was rather ignorant of this European presence in those boom years, so it was fascinating to wander along Baquedano street and see the grandiose town houses they built and which have been restored.  I also looked around the excellent Museu Regional and saw objects connected to nitrate mining, like boots and lamps and a fascinating old time clock for workers made in Liverpool, as well as luxury items such as teapots and gramophones. In the Palacio Astoreca the attendant was very keen to show me the full size billiards table and antique scoreboard made by Burroughes and Watts, a British company.

Houses on Baquedano, Iquique

Iquique has a fascinating setting, squeezed in between the sea and the brown Cordillera de la Costa mountains in a small gap of only about 500 metres. I stayed half a block from the Playa Cavancha (the main city beach) which is nicely maintained.

Playa Cavancha, Iquique

I’ve finally made it to the most northern city in Chile, Arica, just a few kilometres from the Peruvian border. The journey from Iquique was one of the most spectacular so far. Route 5 goes inland away from the sea and has to cross several huge canyons, plunging down along hair-raising bends, then passing through the ravine with steep dusty arid slopes on either side, before climbing up to the top again. 

The port and fish market in Arica

Arica is nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring, but unfortunately my first day here was more like a miserable overcast British summer’s day. It was the perfect opportunity, though, to visit the Azapa museum and see some mummies from the Chinchorro culture which started the practice of mummification in this region about 7000BC well before even the Egyptians.
 

Chinchorro mummy
 The modern day city is a bit of a rundown place and not particularly attractive. It’s main church, the Catedral de San Marcos, does have one claim to fame though. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel before he came up with the little tower in Paris. It was prefabricated in Paris entirely of iron and then shipped to Arica. Quite why, I’m not really sure. Sadly, it’s being renovated at the moment and is surrounded by boards and scaffolding.

Catedral de San Marcos

Today the sun came out and I wandered down to the bustling fish market at the port. Fishermen were hauling the day’s catch onto the pier and others were gutting and cleaning the fish ready for sale. Further up the steps vendors were weighing the fish in huge scales and finally customers were buying. All around pelicans swooped and hungry sea lions bobbed in the water below waiting for scraps. 

Preparing the fish in Arica’s fish market

After that I explored the beaches south of the city and soaked up the sun. This will be my last view of the sea for many weeks as tomorrow I head for the altiplano again and then Bolivia. 

Llamas, volcanoes, lagoons and geysers in the Atacama Desert

 

Salar de Tara
 
Typical, isn’t it? You wait 2 and a half weeks for a llama, then a whole bunch comes at once. I was on my first all day excursion out of San Pedro de Atacama. It was still early and the sun had only just come up as we skirted the base of Volcan Licancabur. A group of llamas were grazing by the road with the volcano behind them, almost as if they knew they looked more photogenic with a good backdrop. 

 

Llamas posing against Volcan Licancabur
 
I was in a group with six others, all Chilean, to visit the Salar de Tara. A Salar is the Spanish for salt lake or salt flat and there are many to be found in this area. They are formed as water runs off the Andes carrying with it minerals. It is then trapped on the altiplano with nowhere to go and so it evaporates in the blistering sun leaving behind salt. 

 

Salar de Aguas Calientes
 
Renan, our guide with a good and apparently filthy sense of humour, tested my Spanish to the full as he embarked on lengthy stories which were full of double-entendres. We drove up to the Salar past astonishing rock formations to an altitude of almost 4900m. Vicuñas ran skittishly as we approached, but there was little other sign of life. We were on the borders with Bolivia and Argentina, surrounded by volcanoes. It felt like a set for a science-fiction movie, remote, forbidding but exhilarating.

 

Vicuña
 
The following day I was booked on another tour, this time to see the Tatio geysers. The unfortunate thing is they are only active around dawn, so this meant getting up at 3.45am! They also stand over 4000m above sea level and at that time of the morning, it’s perishingly cold. As you are are herded around in a tour bus with countless other shivering, bleary-eyed tourists, you start to wonder if it was all worthwhile. However, the sight of these gushing geysers spouting as the sun rose was quite breathtaking. 

 

El Tatio geysers
 
The last day was spent on another excursion which took in the Piedras Rojas, the lagoons of Miscanti and Miniques and the stunning Chaxa lagoon in the Salar de Atacama where you can see flamingoes feeding.

 

Laguna Chaxa
 
I stayed in the small town of San Pedro de Atacama, or rather on the edge of it with great views of Volcan Licancabur. The quaint centre of town was for me a little too touristy, a victim of its own success. You know the kind of place – every building is a tour agency, restaurant or hostel. Luckily, the surrounding area is what you really come for, but pretty much all of the attractions are too far afield to explore on your own, so you have no choice but to take expensive and over-priced tours. I like to be able to get out and visit places on my own steam, but this wasn’t an option here. 

 

Church in the village of Machuca
 
San Pedro is Northern Chile’s top attraction and justly so, but you have to come prepared for what that entails, ie. crowds and higher prices. I’m just glad I was here before the high season starts. If you’re coming from Bolivia, as many people do, you might find it an anticlimax, but as my first taste of the High Andes on this trip, I was not disappointed.

Flamingoes in flight over the Salar de Atacama

Fish, bingo and Winston Churchill, from Caldera to Antofagasta

 

Sea lions in Caldera
 
“Fish,” the man cried in English. I looked around me. I was in the fish market in the coastal town of Caldera in northern Chile surrounded by glistening wet fish. I nodded in agreement and smiled. “Yes, fish.” The man repeated,“Fish!” and grinned. “Yes, a lot of fish, ” I replied and tried to move off, but the man wasn’t letting me go that easily. “Fish!” he exclaimed, even more vociferously. By this time a curious crowd had gathered. I wasn’t sure if the man was trying to sell me fish, practise the only word in English he seemed to know, or maybe he was the village idiot.

 

Paila marina
 
In fact, fish is one of the great delights in Chile. My favourite dish so far is Paila Marina, a kind of soup piled high with all types of shellfish, some of which are not easily recognisable, but still delicious. After I’d managed to escape from the most repetitious conversation of my life, I had lunch in a restaurant in the market next to the port. And yes I had fish. Below the market sea lions basked in the sun on the rocks below waiting for … fish.

 

Sea bird in Caldera
 
Caldera is a slightly rundown town, but has a certain quirky charm, especially in the off season. Just down the coast is Bahia Inglesa, where there is a small and pleasant beach which certainly doesn’t live up to the excessive praise the guidebooks give it. It’s pleasant but nothing special. But then, you don’t really come to Chile for the beaches. In the 17th century English pirates came to sack the place, hence the name Bahia Inglesa (English Bay).

 

Bahia Inglesa
 
 The coastline from Caldera all the way up to Antofagasta is certainly striking, but in a rugged, desolate kind of way. There are few sand beaches, just rocks and cliffs. The inaptly named Pacific Ocean batters the shore with huge waves and in many places a persistent fog lingers over the coastal areas. The road hugs the coast for much of the way making for a spectacular journey.
It’s desert here, but not the rolling dunes of Lawrence of Arabia. This is desert in the sense that nothing grows. The towns and villages are small and the buildings are rarely more than a few storeys high. They’re surrounded by dust and have an unkempt feel. And everything looks brown. Very brown.

 

Harbour in Antofagasta
 
I was anxious to get to San Pedro de Atacama, but it was a long haul by bus, so I decided to break the journey in Antofagasta, despite the fact that the guidebooks don’t give it much of a write-up. Guess what? It’s actually okay for a night, with a dramatic sea front in the suburbs with waves crashing in and a nicely renovated pier in the centre.

Antofagasta has an interesting history and some old buildings survive from its prosperous past as a major export centre for the mines in the interior. It used to belong to Bolivia until Chile captured the area and Bolivia then also lost its access to the sea in the War of the Pacific in 1879. The British had a strong presence here too and the main square has a clock tower that is allegedly a replica of London’s Big Ben. Well, there is a British flag on it next to the Chilean one.

 

Antofagasta’s Big Ben
 
Most bizarre thing I saw in Antofagasta: two scantily clad women salsa dancing in a bingo hall of all places. I wonder how many distracted patrons missed that all important number.

Most interesting thing I saw in Antofagasta: in a temporary exhibition on the railroads there was a telegram from Winston Churchill thanking the city for the good wishes it sent him on his 90th birthday in 1964, just a few months before his death.