As far as traveling goes, you spend a lot of time covering miles between various cities, jungles, deserts, towns and maybe even a couple of hammocks strung between two cacti. Mostly all in search of a warm bed, photographic opportunities, the foodie experience, and of course to lay down (hopefully) permanent neural pathways that lead to our cherished travel memories. This can sometimes involve one to several exasperatingly long methods of transport, including bus, taxi, train, walking, or even high altitude, back-pack laden sprinting, depending on how many local disowned dogs are snapping at your heels. Anyway, we decided to try a new modality of getting from A(ltiplano) [high Andean plateau] to Y(ungas) [jungle]...sorry, couldn't think of anything starting with Z in Espanol. And so began our Epic Andean mountain bike and Amazon river trip.
As I always say, there's no better way to see a country than by bicycle. This rang true. We started from the serenely set, picturesque town of Sorata. The terraced town surrounded by snow capped peaks, with the indomitable Ilampu Mountain looming overhead, standing sentry at 6368m. We met our group the night before over a delicious meal, a tribute to the above mentioned food experience. It consisted of what seemed like several transverse sections through one unlucky bovine. Seriously big steak for the seriously protein conscious (doing Tim proud). The crowd consisted of two local guides, Alejandro, general all round great guy, and Maurizio, the two- time national Bolivian downhill champion. Man, can this boy ride a bike. The groupies included two Australians, an Irish lad, and two lanky Norwegians with the pallor of the surrounding snowy peaks.
The first day started off with loading the downhill style mountain bikes on top of the Land Rover (just the outer shell thankfully, the soul was all Nissan. Although Toyota would have been preferred, but I guess bikers can't be choosers). We all hopped in for the tortuous route upwards to the bike departure point at 4600m, at the base of the Andean range. They say the world's most dangerous road (WMDR) is on the outskirts of La Paz, but I beg to differ. We found several on that two hour journey that would send the WMDR fleeing with its muddy tail between its legs. We landed at the snow capped drop off point, kitted up with whatever warmth and skull protecting gear we could find, and headed down hill! In short, it was a descent of 4000m over 120km in two days...insane! The vistas were spectacular, the riding even better. We passed from icy white peaks, through lunar landsacpes, dense cloud forests, and eventually plunged into the humid green sea of Amazonian infinity. There were (mostly) broad grins the entire way down. Although, in the last few kilometres of day one, Megs found an inconveniently placed rock that sent her flying to the dirt. Winded, and wearing some gravelly road rash, she pedalled stoically on, understandibly not smiling. Nothing broken, wounds patched, she was ready to truck on the next day.
As for the food, this was a tour evidenlty organised by men. Our guides were also the chefs. I liked their gastronomic theory: if one rides, one must eat. And eat we did! At the very basic, cold-showered stop over villages, we were treated to voluminous feasts of carbohydrate replenishing foods. Pastas with locally grown vegetables (organic and then some), french toast Bolivian style, vat-like pots of local hot chocolate, mounds of scrambled eggs, thick tar-like chunks of locally produced cocoa paste meant for spreading on toast (Amazonian Nutella you could say), mate tea, and of course pots of coffee strong enough to put hair on almost anything. The guides did our stomachs proud. The high altitude cold showers after a long day on the bikes however, were not our happiest moments.
On the third day, we hung up our wheels, and headed aboard a motorised dug out canoe for the next three days. When I say dug out, I mean the boat was literally carved out of one single trunk of an unfortunate Bolivian tree. It was about 5 feet wide, and 20 feet long, with a canopy, but no back rest sadly! This was going to be a challenge for the spines and suffering cores supporting them. Our river guide was a man named Zane, a local man with a gravitas that exuded cool, extremely knowlegable in local fauna and flora. He was an ace at piloting the boat, which at times had to lift it's engine to avoid the propellar getting chewed up on the shallow gravel beds below. We also had the pleasure of Maria, a local cook who prepared all our meals, either aboard the dug out, or around the embers at our camp sites.
The river wound its way past ceaseless local gold mines, all displaying their fungal like erosions on the once pristine river banks,and haemorrhaging muddy torrents into the flow. When Mr. Evo Morales (first indigenous president in all of South America), came into power, he nationalised the gold mines. Pros of this: more votes for Evo, everybody gets a slice of the pie, and gets to fortunately eat it, more entrepreneurship, and notably an increase in employment rates. Cons: every man on the street, or river bend in this case, and his dog, can become a gold miner, thus creating the evident free-for all mining exploits along most of the Amazonian tributaries. The government then buys the gold back from the miners at a higher cost, this after subsidising the mining exploits in the first place. If the government refuse to pay the higher prices, the miners usually have two options. Either they offer it abroad to next highest bidder, or more commonly they go on wild cat strikes, and march into towns and cities, literally armed with homemade dynamite. Bottom line, it's serious power to the people. In terms of the environmental damage factor, the Bolivian government have adopted a 'wait and see approach'. The guides said that no less than ten years ago the waters used to be clean, and teem with hundreds of fish species, capable of sustaining the local population. Now, deforrestation, erosion and silting dominate these rivers, killing off most of the aquatic life, and chasing the rest of the fauna further into the ever shrinking jungle. So what to do? Continue with indiscriminate mining of a finite resource, all the while destroying milennia of another finite resource, and then wait until both have vanished before coming up with the contingency plan? Not sure what the solution here is, but the prognosis sounds poor.
Once past the mining areas, we entered into Madidi National Park via the water highway. Now presented with pristine forest, we felt the Amazon experience could finally begin. We camped along the river beds and impressive rock walls in the jungle. Fruit trees stooped with fruit loomed overhead, with jungle canopies so dense that only dappled light reached our faces. We had refreshing night river swims/showers, hiked to natural waterfalls, and trekked through untouched parts of Madidi. The sand flies however had their way with us. You can't feel the critters biting you, and you land up scratching the lesions for weeks on end. Think mosquito bite on steroids. The biting and stinging elements in these parts are definitely a lowlight. After the boating run, we ended the trip at the Caribbean-esque town of Rurrenabaque,a quaint village along the Rio Beni. Relieved after surviving the dug out, and peppered with sand fly scars, we stepped onto the banks, and headed for warm showers and the Anthisan! The next part of the journey was awaiting...the Amazon ecolodge experience.