The other side of Bolivia – cloud forests, convents and a Che Guevara pilgrimage – in the Oriente

Llama
The llamas must have good agents – they get all the good press. There they are on the front covers of the guidebooks and all the tourist literature, along with the volcanoes, brightly coloured rugs and shawls and Aymaran women sporting bowler hats. But there’s much more to Bolivia than alpacas and the altiplano, as I discovered when I set off to explore the east of the country (The Oriente) where Che Guevara finally met his end at the hands of the Bolivian army (with a little help from the Americans). 
Che mural at the Lavanderia, Vallegrande

 My first stop east was the town of Cochabamba. I’d booked a day bus with TransCopacabana and had high hopes for a luxury bus. In adjacent bays stood double-deckers with on board toilets and aircon. Then I found mine. As so often happens, I seemed to have booked the most decrepit vehicle possible, broken seats, no aircon, no loo with a 7 or 8 hour journey to look forward to. Despite being rushed onto the bus, we left an hour late. I’ve discovered that bus departure times in Bolivia are merely an expression of vague hope. In fact it’s only on the big intercity routes that you have buses (flotas) with set times. In the smaller places you are dependent on shared taxis and vans (trufis) and small buses (micros) which often only leave when full.
Plaza 14 de septiembre, Cochabamba
Cochabamba sits at 2500 metres above sea level and has a Mediterranean feel to it, very different to La Paz. There’s not a huge amount to do, but there’s a beautiful colonial square and the fascinating Convento de Santa Teresa where you can take a guided tour. For centuries nuns lived here all their life with no contact with the outside world whatsoever. I also went to La Cancha, Bolivia’s biggest and most frenetic market. It seemed as if you could buy just about anything there and it was easy to get lost. I did twice! 
Santa Cruz
Further east way down in the lowlands lies Santa Cruz, where it’s supposed to be hot and steamy, but the cold front that’s been following me around made it there too. It’s a city that moves to a very different beat. It’s an agricultural heartland and its inhabitants are generally rich landowners who do not support the president, Evo Morales. Everywhere you go in the highlands, Evo’s power base, you see graffiti proclaiming “Evo Si” – Evo Yes. Here you can see graffiti encouraging people to vote no in the recent referendum in which Evo asked the people to support a change in the constitution which would have allowed him to stand for a fourth term.

Samaipata

A few hours away in the hills outside Santa Cruz is Samaipata, a great little village with lots of restaurants run by expats from France, Spain, Canada and Brazil, which means you can finally get some decent food and eat something other than fried chicken. On the outskirts of town is El Fuerte, sometimes billed as Bolivia’s Machu Picchu. It isn’t, of course, but it’s an intriguing site all the same. It’s basically a huge rock with animals carved into it and ceremonial shrines. 
Giant ferns, Parque Nacional Amboro

I had a wet, muddy but rewarding hike into the cloud forest of Parque Nacional Amboro which is just 40 minutes away. It lived up to its name by being completely shrouded in mist and cloud, so there were no views to be had of the surrounding mountains, but it was very atmospheric and the giant ferns were impressive. 
Street in Vallegrande

My last stop in the Oriente was Vallegrande, where in 1967 Che Guevara’s corpse was laid out in a hospital laundry room to show the world he had been killed. I took a trufi from Samaipata. The driver was driving with one hand and using the other to stuff coca leaves in his mouth. At first when you arrive in Bolivia it looks like a lot of men are suffering from inflamed molars, but in fact their cheek is full  of coca leaves. To me the taste is very bitter, but the tea is good and really helps with altitude sickness.

The Lavanderia where Che’s body was laid out

In Vallegrande I visited the hospital, the Che museum and the mausoleum which marks the site where the remains of Che and six of his comrades were finally unearthed in 1997 after one of the Bolivian soldiers involved in the secret burial finally revealed the location. All the sites are quite poignant and moving. The laundry room is covered in graffiti, the museum has a book of remembrance still in use and the gardens of the mausoleum have trees planted by his brother, a daughter and other heroes of the Cuban Revolution. 

Che’s unmarked grave now housed in the mausoleum

Whatever your opinion of Che, it’s a fascinating look back at history and his total dedication to the revolution is undeniable. Even after almost 50 years he still exerts an influence on many people. My guide told me he was 20 when the body was disinterred and from that moment his curiosity was aroused. The sites are tranquil and the countryside surrounding Vallegrande is beautiful. It provided the perfect conclusion to my Eastern odyssey.

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Stepping back in time in the Jesuit Missions of Chiquitania, Eastern Bolivia

San Jose de Chiquitos

If you’ve ever dreamed of wandering around a UNESCO World Heritage site and having the place entirely to yourself, then make a beeline to the Jesuit Missions of Chiquitania in Eastern Bolivia. In the five days I spent touring the region I didn’t see a single other tourist. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the sun for four days either.

San Jose de Chiquitos
300 hundred years ago the Jesuits arrived in this area with the aim of converting the locals to Catholicism. Their mission was supported initially by the Spanish crown as it was a way of subduing the ethnic people without resorting to violence. The Jesuits taught their new-found followers skills in construction, carpentry and music and together they built some magnificent churches. As the film “The Mission” showed, however, the Jesuits were eventually thrown out of South America and the churches collapsed into ruin.

San Miguel de Velasco

In neighbouring Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay most of the sites are in ruins, but in Bolivia the towns surrounding the churches thrive and the churches themselves were painstakingly restored in the 1970s and 1980s. The facades are richly decorated and the interiors house magnificent altars and statues. 

San Miguel de Velasco
Even if, like me, you’re not religious, these sites still impress with their sense of history and transport you back in time. The towns are set out in the usual grid system with a huge plaza at the centre. An interesting stylistic feature of the streets is that the wooden roofs of the buildings hang out across the pavements, giving protection from the sun and rain. Most of the streets are still unpaved and consist of red earth. Basic shops operate out of tiny premises and cobblers sit in the streets performing their work out in the open.

San Miguel
Another curious feature of the area is the presence of Mennonites, a Dutch Protestant sect that fled persecution in Europe and found refuge here. Like the Amish, they generally reject modern life and keep to themselves. I wondered how difficult it would be to find them. In fact, they found me on my first bus journey from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to San José de Chiquitos, when a man and his three children got on, all dressed in dungarees and with golden hair, as if they’d stepped out of a fairy story.

Concepcion
I travelled north from San José to San Ignacio, visiting San Miguel from there, and then onto Concepción which I found the nicest. On the downside, there’s not much to do apart from visit the churches so it means there’s a lot of travelling and only a little actual sightseeing. There are some waterfalls and lakes in the area, but unfortunately for me these weren’t an option as another annoying cold front moved in, making it unpleasant even sitting in the main square. In fact, I feel like this cold front is following me around, like a rain cloud above a cartoon character.

Concepcion
The towns in the Missions Circuit are conveniently grouped in a circle. However, the Bolivian transport system makes it as inconvenient as possible to get around. Many private companies all operate a variety of buses, minivans and taxis so getting impartial information is not easy, even if you speak Spanish. The good news, though, is that the roads are slowly being improved, reducing journey times considerably. However, as access improves, the crowds will increase, so go now if you want to have the place to yourself, as I did. 

Concepcion

Enjoying the spectacular views in La Paz

La Paz
Flying into La Paz from the jungle is one of the great flights you can take in Latin America. In 40 minutes you go from verdant green with chocolate brown rivers snaking their way through the dense jungle below to the stark barren mountains of the Andes. But when I landed at the airport in El Alto I had to face another classic South American experience – the political demonstration. I walked across to the airport bus only to be told that all routes down to the city of La Paz were blockaded.
Plaza Murillo
At the airport I teamed up with some savvy locals and we managed to persuade a taxi driver to find a way through to the south zone, from where, I was told, I could get a local bus up to the historic centre where I was staying. Now, according to the guidebooks, you should only ever take official radio taxis. Lack of regulation here means that anyone can paint the word taxi on the side of their car and they’re in business. Unfortunately, that business can also mean kidnapping tourists and keeping them hostage for several days while they empty your bank account. Luckily, I made it to my hotel with all my luggage and money intact. 

Cloisters in the San Francisco Church

La Paz is not an immediately attractive city, but there’s no denying it has a spectacular setting. It sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains and volcanoes at a height of 3660 metres. The sprawling new city of El Alto where the airport is and which is inhabited primarily by people of Aymaran ethnicity, spreads over the rim of the bowl onto the altiplano. Whenever protestors want to make their voice heard, it’s relatively easy to block off all access and effectively paralyse the city.

Calle Jaen

There is some great colonial architecture and some good museums around Plaza Murillo and Calle Jaen and it’s also a fascinating place to people-watch. Local Aymaran women walk around in traditional clothes and hats often with huge bundles on their backs containing goods for sale or children. They trip up and down the steep narrow roads undaunted by the altitude, while recently-arrived tourists huff and puff. 

Street, La Paz

But really in La Paz it’s all about the views. There’s a relatively new cable car system linking various places in La Paz with El Alto which offer tremendous views. It’s not really a tourist attraction, but it’s cheap and fun. You can see below the unfinished houses with exposed red bricks and roofs of corrugated iron. Apparently, if your house remains unfinished, you’re exempt from taxes.

Red line on the cable car

You can bike down the so-called Death Road to Coroico, although I’m not great with heights so I was happy with the bus ride down. Even that was hair-raising enough. One of the best things I did was to take a trip to Cerro Chacaltaya. The only way to get there is by organised tour and I really hate being herded around in a minibus, so I was initially reluctant. However, despite the bus being late to pick me up, it was still a great trip. 

View from Chacaltaya

The bus takes you up another stomach-churning road to a refuge from where you can climb and scramble to the top of the mountain. Every step is hard-going due to the thinness of the air and you have to take frequent rests, but the views from the top were out of this world. At 5395m above sea level it’s the highest I’ve ever climbed.


Like many big cities, La Paz offers up its charms slowly and the longer you stay here, the more you appreciate it. However, winter is now here and the nights have turned freezing, so I’m looking forward to making my way down into the lowlands tomorrow.

Viewing the wildlife along the rivers of the Pampas del Yacuma

Sunset in the Pampas

I’m not a big fan of wellington boots, but there I was, wading ankle-deep through the swamp waters of the Pampas del Yacuma. Not only that, but we were searching for anacondas. This is their natural habitat. Luckily, our guide failed to find any. It’s the end of the rainy season, which means the water levels are still high, giving the snakes plenty of space to hide.
Me in my wellies
When I arrived in Rurrenabaque after my overland jungle trip from La Paz, it was gloriously hot. This river town on the Rio Beni is small and laid-back and has low rise buildings. Surprisingly, there is an outpost of the Bolivian navy here with a command centre right next to my hotel. In fact, it’s surprising that Bolivia even has a navy, given that it has no coastal access. But the river here does go all the way to the border with Brazil, so if Brazil decides to invade, I guess they’re prepared. 

The best way through the swamp is by boat

Jungle mountains loom to the south of the town. To the north lies a different ecosystem, that of the Pampas, where the dense jungle gives way to open grasslands and swamps. Cattle farming is the main activity here, but tourism is also important. And unlike the jungle, you are almost guaranteed sightings of wildlife. This time I signed up for the easier option of staying in a lodge for two nights with Mashaquipe, a community-based organisation. It’s not the cheapest operator around, but it was definitely good value for money.

Howler monkeys

On the three-hour drive to the lodge based on the Rio Yacuma we saw a sloth, some caiman, a rhea (similar to an ostrich) and many birds. After lunch on the first day we had the opportunity to swim with the river dolphins, but for some reason they seemed shy and uninterested. Occasionally, they bobbed up in the distance, but didn’t want to play.

A sloth

The next few days passed peacefully by on boat trips along the river, observing howler monkeys, capybara (a kind of huge rodent), caiman at night and many different species of birds. The sunsets were also out of this world.

Squirrel monkey

The rain set in as we were leaving the lodge and the dirt road back to Rurrenabaque was churned up with mud. I never expected to be cold in the jungle. It’s supposed to be hot, humid and sweaty, right? But I’ve been wearing my fleece and boots and the owner of the Hotel Oriental here on Rurrenabaque’s main square handed out blankets. Apparently a cold front occasionally comes in bringing low temperatures and rain. And that’s happened just as I’d planned a few relaxing days swinging in a hammock, recovering from my expeditions to the jungle and pampas.

Dusk in the Pampas

The sun came out briefly, so I hopped on a moto taxi up to Oscar’s Bar which has a swimming pool and panoramic views of Rurrenabaque. But then the clouds appeared again and the temperature dropped. Although it’s a great place to relax with traveller-friendly cafes, I get the impression that a certain level of lawlessness lurks beneath. For example, I noticed that many vehicles don’t have licence plates. Apparently, these are all stolen and the local police seem to turn a blind eye – for a fee I’m sure. But when I’m back in bustling La Paz tomorrow, I know I’m going to miss the relaxed pace of the jungle.