Sweltering Swamplands

Due to an election last Sunday, all the bus lines in Bolivia were shut down so Stefje and I ended up hopping on the last bus out of Cochabamba bound for Santa Cruz at 5pm. This meant we pulled in to the city at 2am, where we quickly found some dorm beds and gratefully passed out for some more sleep. 

Compared to the indigenous attire we’re been seeing in small towns and all the traditional influences visible in Bolivia, we were shocked to find that Santa Cruz was practically a cosmopolitan American city. The streets are lined with high-end fashion boutiques, artisanal coffee shops, and art galleries. The roads are packed with new cars from brands I actually recognized, and even the people appear more westernized: their complexions are lighter and there’s noticeably fewer who are overweight. Even the climate is more reasonable, with an elevation of just under 500 meters and perpetual sunshine lighting up the rows of palm trees that dot the main parks. All of these factors conspire to make Santa Cruz Bolivia’s hottest destination for long term ex-pats. 

Although the free breakfast was a delicious surprise and the courtyard pool looked inviting, we decided the hostel we landed in was far too expensive. On Sunday morning we set off on an expedition all the way across town, walking for hours in the suddenly oppressive heat in search of a more economical option. Eventually we found one in a cheaper part of town, but not before stumbling across a beautiful pet parrot at a more expensive hotel. 

After our adventure off the grid in Torotoro we were ready for some Western comforts and patrolled the city in search of somewhat functional wi-fi until we popped into a Starbucks and didn’t retire for far too long. 

Everything was pretty much shut down on Sunday so we set off on Monday morning to explore the central part of the town, but we quickly found that the city severely lacked the charming atmosphere and natural beauty of Bolivia’s other main tourist destinations. In our 2 days in Santa Cruz we barely saw any other gringos, but they were well supplemented by plenty of delightful interactions with helpful locals. 

That morning we strolled through the market right next door to our hotel, overwhelmed by the utter chaos of DVD and meat vendors side by side, the entire scene wrapped in a blanket of honking traffic. For a late breakfast we stopped in at a family-fun Salteña operation where we sipped on cups of real coffee and marveled at their collection of historic photographs charting the city’s development over the last century. Soon after we came upon the main plaza, it’s shade-throwing trees and benches an oasis of comfort in the otherwise stifling heat. 

We decided we weren’t in the mood to pay 150 Bolivianos to hit up the city’s only major tourist attraction-a nearby nature park-so instead we found a good deal on an hour of bowling and a bottle of wine. From Santa Cruz we decided to head north towards the jungle in Trinidad, and the wine turned out to be the perfect prescription to knock us out for a smooth overnight bus ride. 

Five minutes after sunrise we pulled in to the bus terminal in Trinidad, outpost to the Rio Mamoré, one of the strongest rivers in the Amazon. At this point we were completely removed from the trappings of the so-called “Gringo Trail” and had very little information to base our decisions off, but we had our sights set on renting a boat. In Trinidad we tried a few tourism offices but eventually hopped on motorcycle taxis and headed straight for the source of the river, where we heard better deals could be had. In Cochabamba we were quoted $611 USD; once we got to Trinidad it was down to $150 for a 3 day trip; by the time we pulled into a port and asked around until we found a boat driver, it was $40. 

As soon as we rode away from Trinidad, all signs of human life floated away and the swamp took over, it’s heat sweating straight through our shirts and making just walking for a few minutes unbearable. The port town of Lomo Suarez was a quiet little place with all the citizen’s eager to help us by becoming tourist operators. Our driver took almost three hours to “prepare” and do a multitude of other things along the muddy dock with his fellow boatmen. I took the down time to procure provisions for the trip: a mosquito net (borrowed from an old lady), a 20 liter jug of water, and a bottle of rum. After taking one look at the sleeping options we decided to opt for a two day trip, increasingly skeptical if the tent our driver promised would ever magically appear.

That afternoon we coasted down the tranquil river, letting the gentle whirring of the motor lull our minds away and keeping our eyes peeled for signs of wildlife on the shore and in the river. The murky water was punctuated by floating or drifting islands of grasses, each one occupied with birds searching for tiny insects to eat.

Eventually we progressed far enough up stream to cross paths with the wide cutting swath of the Rio Mamoré. Just as we approached the river’s mouth, we got our first glimpse of the Amazon’s famous pink river dolphins. Scaled grey in color yet with spines and fins that morph into a dull pink when on the move, we spotted a family of three and as we doubled back they dawdled as well, playing with each other in the water. 

As the sun was setting in the West ahead of us we pulled into dock on a wide stretch of completely untouched beach. The shoreline was intensely muddy with muck from the river, but beyond lay pristine white sand for 100 meters until a forest higher than the flood line began. It was a memorable spot to spend our relaxing afternoon, observing the birds that came to chill in the calm shallow water and the slow progression of fishing boats floating across our view.

By the time the sun was dipping low into the sky we started wondering what would be on the menu for dinner, but then our guide whipped out a makeshift fishing pole and within half an hour caught six piranhas in the 10 yard radius around our boat, quickly terminating any thoughts of going swimming in the obscured water. 

He pulled down their lower lip, giving us a scary view of their human-like pearly white teeth that are so notoriously sharp. We whipped up a fire on the beach to grill the fresh fish and soon enough we were chowing down on a piranha stew. As beautiful as the sunset was, it also marked the arrival of the mosquitos; for the next two hours we weren’t the only ones feasting. The blood suckers numbered in the thousands and were rampantly aggressive, making us devastatingly uncomfortable and making me look like a chicken pox patient the next morning. That night we slept on one of the most uncomfortable beds I’ve ever experienced, as all we had was a tarp and a thin blanket spread out on the uneven floorboards of the boat. 

At 6AM the sun peeked over the trees on the Eastern bank and streamed right into my eyes, marking the end of a fitful night’s sleep. That day we drifted back to Lomo Suarez, pausing intermittently along the way. For a late breakfast we pulled into the campsite and farming field of a man who lives a solitary life along the river’s bank, growing papaya, corn, and yuka (a potato-like root). It was an interesting peek into what can only be defined as a severely alternative lifestyle, but Stefje and I both decided we probably wouldn’t last more than a few days out there before going crazy and aching for some peanut butter or chocolate. 

Along the banks of the river we even encountered a stoic family of Capybaras, sitting at attention and eyeing the boat suspiciously. As soon as we whipped the camera out they began to scatter, quickly camouflaging themselves in the surroundings, but not before we snapped a shot of the almost identical triplet babies. 

By 2pm I was pleased to be back on dry land and in reach of food not cooked with river water. Quickly we returned our borrowed supplies and commandeered a pickup truck to get hauled back to Trinidad. All things are relative, and we quickly found that the small town felt more like a bustling metropolis after the deep quiet of the river’s hinterlands. To while away the time before a night bus back to Santa Cruz we spent the afternoon indulging in some of the necessities of civilization: a hot shower, empanadas, and cold beers.

Even as the sky turned dark that night the temperature in Trinidad was a head-throbbing 97 degrees, making moving around under the weight of our backpacks exhausting and causing me to immediately sweat straight through my clean shirt. By 9PM we bid the sweaty swamp goodbye, putting us on schedule to arrive in Santa Cruz at 5AM. At 4:55AM we did just that, then tried to figure out how to acquire onward travel to our next destination, the small town of Samaipata. After an hour plus of trials and tribulations searching for transport in the pre-dawn darkness, we finally found a mini-bus service that was open and almost instantaneously departed for another three hour ride. 

Slowly the vast urban metropolis of Santa Cruz and its suburbs faded away and was replaced by the lush landscapes of the Samaipata area, with verdant green hillsides and roadside stands boating freshly picked fruits and vegetables. The land is so prone to natural vegetation and the climate so inviting that we quickly found the town attracts hippies of all kinds and all ages. Some are the younger wandering type prevalent through most of South America, easily spotted in plazas selling displays of intricate handmade jewelry and sipping mugs of steaming Yerba Mate tea. Others are a little older and have chosen Samaipata as their place to settle down, opening up hostels with prolific herb gardens or cafes with classic art pieces lining the walls. 

The inhabitants and small town feel combine to give Samaipata an inviting vibe, and by the time Stefje and I finally settled in at El Jardin hostel after 3 straight nights without real beds we decided it would be the perfect place to get some much-needed rest and relaxation. The hostel’s beautiful grounds were packed with trees and we strolled around, admiring the creative recycling of glass bottles that wouldn’t have been out of place in Berkeley, CA or Ithaca, NY.

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In the afternoon we started exploring the small collection of streets and shops that make up the town and were unsurprised to find that pretty much everything was shut down from Noon to 3PM for a city-wide afternoon siesta. 

As evening fell we grabbed some dinner and then felt compelled to visit the one bar in town, which had a great variety of beer samplings imported from breweries all over Bolivia. While there I encountered one of the most interesting used books I’ve ever stumbled across: an “Africa on a Shoestring” Lonely Planet guidebook…from 1986! It was still in mint condition and we marveled at the pertinent long-term traveling advice in the front section, admiring how much still holds true today. But when leafing through the countries, we were blown away by the challenges and dangers associated with traversing war-torn countries still devoid of tourism infrastructure. 

The Samaipata is full of day trips just a short car ride away, so on Friday we headed off to a set of waterfalls nearby. Our cab driver dropped us off at the entrance and offered to wait a few hours for us to explore the grounds. We started walking alongside a quiet creek in the woods, but then were surprised as we approached the first waterfall and could hear shrieks and laughs of children cascading back through the forest. Even though it wasn’t officially the weekend yet, families and schoolchildren from Santa Cruz filled the park, swimming in the river’s natural pools and playing soccer on the sandy beaches. 

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Stefje and I progressed to the third and final waterfall, settling down to observe the scene and take a shower under the fall’s thunderous downpour. It was a perfectly relaxing afternoon and by the time I returned to town I was feeling mentally and physically refreshed. That afternoon and all day on Saturday we relished the festive outdoor environment at El Jardin hostel. As opposed to the popular hostels in some of South America’s bigger tourist destinations, the crowd primarily consisted of travelers from Latin America, meaning Spanish was the primary language spoken. The long-term traveler community prevalent in Samaipata also spurs a kind-of secondary economy, as throughout the day aspiring baker-entrepreneurs come through the hostel grounds, hawking baskets of freshly baked breads, pastries, and brownies. 

On Saturday a traveling band showed up and entertained us most of the day, playing traditional Peruvian and Argentinian songs on their guitars, pan flutes, and recorders while we relaxed on hammocks in the sunshine. All in all, I wasn’t eager to leave the friendly town of Samaipata, but on Saturday night that’s just what we had to do, hopping on a night bus to Sucre. With that decision it means I’m headed back towards the popular gringo trail, but it was great to spend a few weeks exploring part of Bolivia’s less trampled traveling trail.