Week Five: Bolivia

You know the drill by now. I’m in South America. Doing lots of football-related stuff while occasionally seeing something else.

Hola a Todos,

Well, this last week has seen much less football related things than normal. No matches. No coaching. Lots of tourism and lots of relaxing.

Last week’s post was written on a bus caught in a thunderstorm as I returned to La Paz for one night.

La Paz

I tracked the minute hand on my watch as it worryingly crept towards 11PM. My phone’s Bolivian SIM card had stopped working while in transit from Uyuni to La Paz and so I had no data and thus no hostel in La Paz. I knew of one very close to the bus terminal but also that it closed for new guests at 11PM

My bus arrived at 10:45PM after winding down the road from El Alto district where I have previously visited the enormous flea market. My hostel, or the one I wanted, was called The Rooftop Hostel. So I knew the building had to be reasonably large. Unfortunately, there were eight or nine small skyscrapers around the bus terminal, but I did eventually, and somewhat frantically, find the rooftop and was taken to a room more fitting of a hotel.

I am beginning to learn that almost everything you worry about ends up being fine, particularly when it comes to time in South America. The Bolivians have a saying: ‘everything is possible, nothing is certain’.

La Paz was the same as I remembered it: bustling, busy and ugly in many parts. The following morning, I went out to search for contraband waterproof trousers, hoping for a bargain. I had to settle for some fake Adidas tracksuits. I needed them for a trip to the Amazon Rainforest.

I quickly rushed back to my hostel, left my big suitcase there with the constantly reiterated promise that I would return and stay another night in future, and took a taxi to La Paz Airport.

Here, I attempted to buy a new SIM card for my phone, only to be told that I couldn’t be sold one from one of the country’s biggest companies because the person in charge of SIM cards was on their lunch break for the next two hours. That there were six other employees in the phone shop room didn’t seem to matter. You win some, you lose some.

I eventually boarded another tiny plane. It had two engines and no propellers which was comforting after some of the stories I had heard. It wasn’t going very far, though. We took off and almost immediately began our descent into Rurrenabaque, the town most well equipped to deal with Jungle tourists.

Rurrenabaque

It is a small town, but it’s got everything you need in large quantities. Our descent into the airport was a little strange and amazing. You fly over the Andes north of La Paz and the mountains slowly decrease in side as you get further north (from a 5000m to 2000m). Then they stop and the jungle appears, cut open by murky brown rivers. Over these rivers, the 20-seater plane flys and then suddenly drops onto a small piece of tarmac with jungle all around.

Only one plane is ever at Rurrenabaque airport, leaving or arriving. When you disembark, you board a bus and within two minutes of landing, you’re winding through the jungle en route to the terminal. The terminal is equally tiny in this airport of petite planes, small runways and tiny terminals surrounded by enormous jungle.

I was herded towards a shared taxi where the driver (Boris) stopped to show us an alligator in the river on our left before dropping us all over the town. As I entered my hostel, he gave me a business card and said he worked for a tour company where I could get 5% off just for knowing him. A sucker for a bargain, I would take him up on that offer, but it was also because that company are known as the best in town.

My hostel was fantastic, with a swimming pool overlooking the Beni River and tacos for dinner.

After dumping bags, I found Boris’ tour company and booked myself onto a three-day, two-night tour of the Pampas. The Pampas is one of the world’s largest protected areas and is made up of many rivers and tropical wetland areas. Dolphins, alligators, monkeys, hundreds of bird species and much more.

We left at 8AM the next morning on the bumpiest and dustiest road I have experienced. How the driver knew what was ahead of him, I do not know.

After three hours or so, we left the car and boarded a dug-out canoe instead. Powered by an engine, a guide called Sandro took us towards the ‘ecolodge’ we were to stay in. After 30 seconds, four pink river dolphins, unique to the River Yacuma, popped the heads above the water and snorted a spray of water upwards.

The next few days were pretty special, with trips up and down river to meet monkeys, swim with dolphins (who have surprisingly soft skin) and spot cayman (alligator-like creatures) at all times of day and night.

There were a few species of monkey but the only ones who were brave enough to come down to boat level were these small yellow ones. So curious and playful, they used me as climbing frame while they fought at the front of our boat and took fruit out of my hand before looking up at me for a smile and scurrying off back into the tree. They are so like humans and remain the best animal.

On the last night, we went piranha fishing up river, having to get out and push the boat through a particularly shallow area. At the other end of the area were these astonishingly large and strong lilypads.

My attempt at fishing began poorly, though I eventually got into the rhythm and plucked four piranhas out of the river which we then ate for dinner. They didn’t have huge amounts of meat on them, but they were tasty and it was satisfying to have beaten a (very small) piranha. Their teeth are ridiculously sharp and even once they’re dead they continue to chomp down if anything enters their mouth.

With bites aplenty, I left the Pampas on Monday afternoon and returned to Rurrenabaque. I’d come to Bolivia partly to see the Jungle and although the Pampas was brilliant, I felt like I hadn’t seen the Jungle. So, forgetting finances for a moment, I booked myself onto another tour, this time to Madidi National Park, the nearest area of ‘proper’ Jungle.

The guide asked me whether I’d like to do it immediately, starting in the morning. I said no, Manchester United are playing. Perhaps I would have been better off going into the Jungle away, but that’s not how football works.

On Tuesday, I woke up with nothing to do except wait for the football. It’s not as if I am in a hub of adventure and activities. But I didn’t want to do anything else. I got a Bolivian haircut, which took five minutes and cost me just over one pound.

Then I made my way to a bar, an hour and a half too early, and enjoyed a 1PM beer as the only person in the bar on a Tuesday afternoon. Eventually I was joined by some Dutch Ajax fans and some Bolivian Barcelona fans. No United fans reared their heads.

We conceded early and the whole experience was painful from there on, apart from a nice pizza which softened the blow.

As I walked out after the game into the 30 degree sun and 80% of humidity, I bumped into a trio of Israelis who I had met very briefly before. They were off to play football, so I joined them about half an hour later for a five-a-side game. I managed to improve my bad mood that had been caused by the football by playing more… football.

Now, I’m sitting in a hammock drinking litres and litres of water to recover and at 8AM tomorrow morning, I head into the Amazon. After that, it’s back to La Paz and then to Buenos Aires, Argentina. I’m beginning to fall asleep in the evening heat though…

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