Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cochabamba (June 26th - July 9th, 2013)

Cochabamba is a nice city where we stayed for several days in between trips to the nearby places (Toro Toro and Tunari National Parks as well as the ruins of Incallajta). What we loved most about Cochabamba was the food, including the best steak we'd ever had, served with an excellent sauce at the restaurant Paprika. The city also has a huge market (the largest open-air market in South America), with tens of thousands of stalls, which we had a look at when searching for a new pair of sandals for Radek. It took a while to find them, but it was well worth it - the sandals are comfortable and seem to be of very high quality.

Indeed it is possible to start sweating gravy and to shop till you drop in Cochabamba. To prevent succumbing to either fate, we decided to visit the Santa Teresa church and convent. For centuries, the cloistered Carmelite nuns would live here in chastity. The place is a bit dark and mysterious, with a church inside a church: they didn't have the technology to finish the cupola of the older church, so they just made a new one inside it.

Santa Teresa convent

The Palacio Portales (the palace of portals or gates) was another place we visited. This beautiful complex was built for the "tin baron" Simón Iturri Patiño and his family. While working as a miner during his youth, Simon I. Patiño discovered a very rich vein of tin, which allowed him to gain control of nearby mines, and later of the international tin market. For most of his life, he lived outside of Bolivia and his birth town Cochabamba, but was always planning to return there, and thus mandated the construction of the palace. Unfortunately, he died on the way there from Europe, and never lived in the house. At the time of his death, he was considered one of the wealthiest men in the world. His palace is now used as a cultural center.

Palacio Portales

This pool at the Palacio palace has a glass layer inside - it's beautiful, but does not permit actual use of the pool

We also really enjoyed visiting the archaeological museum of the Mayor de San Simón university, because our guide was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the various indigenous culture-related objects on display. We learned, for example, that some cultures used cranial deformations among people of higher social status - this was done by applying force to a baby's head.

On one of the hilltops in Cochabamba there is a huge statue of Christ. Cristo de la Concordia is a bit higher than the famous statue in Rio de Janeiro - 33 m and a bit, because Christ is said to have lived 33 years and a bit. We wanted to visit it, but I was not feeling very well, so Radek went to see it alone. He had some trouble finding the right microbus to take in that direction, but eventually found his way. We'd heard about robberies occurring on the stairs leading to the statue, so Radek bought a ticket to the cable car. However, there were very many people queueing for the cable car, which could fit about 25 people at a time. Once he'd estimated that he'd need to wait about two hours, and saw people walking up the stairs, he decided to risk it and followed them. With so many people there, he felt quite safe. The view from the top was quite good. After receiving some confusing information and some more waiting, he could also go up the statue and have a peek some small holes (10 cm in diameter) in the sculpture's sleeves. 

Cristo de la Concordia

The view from Christ's sleeve

All in all, we loved the city. More photos of this wonderful place can be seen here.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Incallajta (July 8th, 2013)

According to Lonely Planet, Incallajta is closest thing Bolivia has to Machu Picchu. We are not able to compare it with Machu Picchu yet, but one thing is sure: Bolivia has not managed to promote this place much, as it seems to receive only one to two visitors per day.

We started our trip very early in the morning taking a shared taxi towards Pocona. We paid 30bs each instead of 20bs, so there were only three people sitting in the back instead of the typical four. After three hours we got off at the small road crossing and started walking. It should have been a two hour walk to Incallajta, but some local guys gave us a ride, so we managed in a bit less than an hour and half.

There was only one woman at the information center and her Spanish seemed to be worse than ours, but we managed to buy the tickets and a small information leaflet. We'd read that it should be possible to buy water there as well, but this was not the case. Most unfortunate for such a hot and sunny day...

Surprisingly, there were two big satellite dishes next to the information center.

One of the satellite dishes at the information center

From the center we continued to the ruins. They were quite large and in a decent state. The whole place is supposedly a replica of the Inca town Cuzco. The central building is considered to be the biggest building the Incas ever built. We had a look at everything in the area within 90 minutes and then started heading back.

Is this is the largest building the Incas built, or will a bigger one still be discovered?

Overview of Incallajta

The buildings now lack roofs

The hike back to the road to Pocona took around two hours. There we were hoping to catch a shared taxi back to Cochabamba, but unfortunately, all were going in the wrong direction. Eventually, a friendly Peruvian priest working in the area gave us a ride towards the main road. Here, we could finally buy something more to drink, and five minutes later, we stopped a bus going back to Cochabamba. It seemed that we'd have a smooth way back to town, but alas! Another bus from the same company had some problems, and our driver went to help him. After an hour, the other bus was still not fixed, but our driver decided to continue driving. We arrived safely back to Cochabamba before sundown.

More pictures are as usually available.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Tunari National Park (July 3rd - 5th, 2013)

Cochabamba is surrounded by beautiful mountains that seemed to just want us to climb them. They are part of the Tunari National Park and include Cerro Tunari - the highest mountain of Central Bolivia (5035m).

Our first visit to the park was very easy. We just took the microbus 35 and got off at the edge of the city. From there we started walking uphill. With a bit of searching around in a dodgy neighborhood, we discovered a track (also for cars) that we followed up. We walked slowly and saw very few people. We got up to almost 4000m, but we not sure of the precise altitude, as we had left all our equipment in the hostel. We had been warned by a friendly guy at the spitting llama that robberies may occur in the lower part of the park, so we only took the absolutely necessary things with us. The view from the top was nice, but probably not worth the whole trip. More important than the view was that we got well acclimatized for the following day, when we planned to go to Cerro Tunari.

Cochabamba and its statue of Christ (on the left)

Cerro Tunari with its 5035m in the distance

Interesting plants we saw during our acclimatization trip

We did not sleep much during the night, and our muscles were aching a lot from the previous day's hike. Nonetheless, when the alarm clock rang at 5 AM, we had breakfast and left our hostel 45 minutes later. To get to the beginning of the Northern, and easier route up the Cerro Tunari, we needed to get to Quillacollo, and from there take a bus towards Morochata. At about 6 AM, we did not see any micro going towards Quillacollo, so we took a taxi instead. This was a lucky decision: we'd heard that the bus to Morochata would leave at 7 AM, but when we arrived there at 6:15, it was already ready to leave. We got the last two seats and started a ride up to 4200 m. The serpentines were quite impressive. At 7:30 we reached a sign indicating the Laguna Macho, got off the bus, and started walking towards this lake. We were not the only people heading in this direction: we also saw a Bolivian family with a 4-year old kid, planning to climb the Cerro Tunari and return on the same day.

A beautiful day in the mountains

Our plan for the day was less ambitious. We planned just to hike to Laguna Macho (ca 4600m), camp there and climb the mountain the next day. We arrived at the lake at around 10 AM, and as we were feeling quite good and it was very early, we decided to continue towards the summit. We hid most of our things behind a large rock and continued only with small backpacks.

Laguna Macho is even accessible by a car

We walked up slowly and as we looked back, we saw the lake getting smaller and smaller. For some time near the edge of the lake, the path disappeared, but the terrain was easy to follow. Moreover, our GPS could guide us in the right direction.

Small lake from far, far away

I had problems with my breathing. I was trying to keep to the rhythm of 30 steps and then a small break of 15 breaths. Not always did I manage, and many times had to take a longer break and sit down for a while. Laura, on the other hand, could breathe more easily, and had to wait for me many times. At around 2 PM, we arrived to the top of Cerro Tunari, meaning that both of us reached a new altitude record of 5035m. I enjoyed the view sitting and eating cookies while Laura took pictures of the surrounding mountains.

It seems that there are no summit crosses in Bolivia

Us at 5035m

Laura with Cochabamba far below
The way down - the same as the way up - was an easy walk. We arrived at our bags at around 4 PM, and soon afterwards set up our tents and cooked dinner. It was a delicious combination of one can of chili con carne and another can of beans. It tasted just marvelous and fed us well.

Laura unpacking her things.
The night was long, as we went to sleep already at 6 PM. The next day we took it very easy. We waited for the sun to dry the tent, cooked breakfast, and started walking only after 10 AM. We were lucky: after ten minutes of waiting at the road, a bus came and took us down to Quillocollo (we didn't get seats, though). From there we took a shared taxi back to Cochabamba and, feeling happy, arrived at our hostel to take a warm shower.

More photos of the Tunari area can be seen here.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Torotoro National Park (June 27th - July 1st, 2013)

After resting for a couple of days in Cochabamba, we decided to catch a bus to the small and remote Torotoro National Park. We´d received some contradictory information about the time and place of the bus departure, so we ventured out to the Southern (and more dangerous) part of Cochabamba in order to find the correct bus company. After asking around, we found the right place and bought tickets to a bus scheduled to depart at 6 PM. In the evening we realized how lucky we were to have gotten seats, because the bus had been completely overbooked. Many people were standing during the ride, and others were left behind. We had read that the trip should take four hours - wishful thinking - it actually took six. That combined with a delay in departure meant that we arrived in Torotoro village past midnight. Fortunately, we´d met a person working at a tour agency while buying tickets. Javier - a Bolivian who´d lived in the Ukraine - told us about his small hostel in Torotoro. Upon arrival, he helped us, along with a girl from Switzerland (Lea) and another from Chile (Darenka), get to the hostel. He then called a tour guide (when do they sleep?) to organize a trip for us for the next day.

The following morning, our 21-year-old guide Denys drove the four of us to Ciudad de Itas (Itas City), a group of magnificent labyrinths and caves. Here, we walked for about two hours, had lunch, saw a condor (I wish I'd had some binoculars) and some rock paintings of unknown origin.

Us and some rock formations - it´s fascinating what water can do!

A path at Ciudad de Itas

Afterwards, we drove to the Umajalanta cave - the deepest cave in Bolivia. During the short walk to its entrance we saw some dinosaur footprints. Similar to the rock paintings, the footprints have not been thoroughly investigated, and much work could still be done here. Although we were in the cave for over three hours and climbed about 850 m, we only saw a small part of the cave. The climb was interesting and quite demanding. Some places along the route were very narrow, and we also needed to abseil a couple of times. It was well worth it, though: the stalagmites and stalactites were absolutely beautiful, and sometimes took strange forms. We also saw an underground lake, home to a species of white and blind fish (Trichomycterus chaberti sp.).

Helmets and headlights were a must

The stalagmite called "Christmas tree"

Some places were really narrow

The next day, Denys took us on a small hike to the nearby natural attractions. We walked along a (currently dry) riverbed, and saw several astounding rock formations, including one that resembled a theater, and another that looked like a bridge. We also saw more dinosaur footprints. A bit later, we arrived at the viewpoint of the Torotoro canyon, 300 meters deep. It was absolutely breathtaking! We then hiked down the canyon and arrived at the Vergel - a cascade that falls down through a set of lush green mosses. Here, we even had a short dip in the not-so-warm water (10-12 degrees C).

Dinosaurs roamed this land

At the Torotoro canyon

The Vergel

In the evening we went to the Pachamama house, built mainly out of the stalagmites, stalactites, rocks with fossils and other interesting materials from the area.

A bench in the Pachamama house

That evening, our companions took a bus to Cochabamba, and we remained in Torotoro for an extra day. We wanted to go to the Llama Chaki ruins, and thought that we could do a 19 km hike to see them. We found out, however, that the trail would be 19 km one way, making the round trip very long. Also, it was predicted to be a sunny day, which is not ideal on a route without trees. We thus decided to forgo the hike and planned a walk to the nearby fossils instead. We went up along another river and arrived at a narrow layer of rock with thousands of fossils of mollusks. These are thought to be several hundred million years old.

Fossils big and small

Our wonderful trip to Torotoro ended the next day, when we took a 6 AM bus back to Cochabamba.

For more pictures of the region, check out this album.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Samaipata and Santa Cruz (June 19th - 25th, 2013)

Samaipata is a small town (ca 3000 inhabitants) flanked by "the elbow of the Andes" (el Codo de los Andes) on one of its sides, and by the cloud forests of Parque Nacional Amboró on the other. We arrived to Samaipata expecting another San Pedro de Atacama. We expected many tour agencies trying to sell us various interesting tours to surrounding places. Well, there were some agencies in Samaipata, but they did not seem very enthusiastic about organizing and selling tours. Also compared to San Pedro, it rains quite often in Samaipata. These were some of the reasons why we ended up going on only one tour instead of the three we were hoping for. Fortunately, there were enough things we could do on our own.

The arrival went smoothly. We had left Sucre with an overnight bus, got off at around 5 AM, and rang on the doorbell of our hostel twenty minutes later. La Posada del Sol was the nicest place we stayed so far on our trip. Run by a guy from Texas and his wife from Cochabamba, things just worked here. We especially liked the adjoined restaurant and bar.

Because of the long night on the bus, we were quite tired on the first day, and therefore spent it by getting price offers from different tour agencies. We also met Olaf from Austria, working as a guide at Road Runners, who gave us many tips and lent Laura a book from his extensive library. When we wanted to go for a short hike to the hill next to Samaipata, it started to rain. Instead of hiking we rather enjoyed the happy hour at our hostel - two cocktails for price of one.

Next day the weather was quite OK, so in the morning we walked to a nearby animal refuge. This place provides shelter to animals that have been rescued from various situations. The people working there (mainly volunteers) try to give the animals as much freedom as possible, so monkeys were running all around and they seemed to enjoy our company.

Wild cat with no interest in us.

In contrast, monkeys, especially Cheetah, really enjoyed our company.

After the zoo and a lunch we took a taxi to el Fuerte. El Fuerte is a large pre-Inca holy place which is even on the UNESCO world heritage list. It was quite empty as it was drizzling a bit, but when we were ready to hike back to Samaipata, we already saw many more people. They were preparing for the celebration of the longest night in the southern hemisphere. Since we heard that the celebration is usually badly organized, starts very late, and because it looked like rain, we decided not to stay for the party.

El Fuerte

Back in Samaipata we asked if any agency already had a group for the next day, but only Michael Blendinger agency, run by a German botanist, had one person signed up for a tour. Because the price of a tour depends on the number of people who join, they suggested that we check with them later the same night or the following morning. We went to our hostel to enjoy another happy hour, and talked with a nice English couple who are on an indefinite journey in South America, and perhaps the world.

The next morning we returned to the agency during their listed opening time, but they were unfortunately closed. Once they opened an hour later, they had sad news for us: the tour had been completely booked the previous evening: we would simply not fit in the car. We were a bit sad about it, but our spirits improved a lot when we hiked up a nearby hill, with lovely views of the surroundings.

Samaipata from the top of the hill we hiked to

On our way down from the hill we took a short look at Pueblito, which was conveniently on our way. This is a hotel built in the form of a small village (one woman just really wanted to have own village), including a square, a chapel, a graveyard, and several cottages. Each cottage had a different "function", such as the baker's, the shoemaker's, the smith's, etc. There was also a colorful and noisy aviary.

After a vegetarian lunch in town we took a taxi to the nearby waterfalls (las Cuevas). There we hiked a bit along the river, which had couple of small, but beautiful cascades. We also encountered a solitary cow, eating her way through the forest.

Laura in front of waterfalls

In the evening we finally managed to book a tour for the Parque Nacional Arboró.

The tour through the park was just great. Our guide was very knowledgeable about all the plants. Not only did he know their names, but also what they are good for. We saw plants that help treat heart disease, diarrhea, coughing, and many other ailments. We had perfect weather and the trail conditions were much better than on the previous day, as the majority of the mud had already dried. The cloud forest was amazing, especially the giant ferns, which were nearly as high as the surrounding trees. During the tour we met Cynthia and Gonzalo - a very friendly couple from Santa Cruz. They were actually the first Bolivians working outside of the tourist industry we had the pleasure of meeting.

Cloud forest, with a giant fern

The last full day of our stay it was raining, so we relaxed and used the local slow Internet to catch up with our blog. In the evening we had some wine and cheese in a local pub and played a game of chess (our first one ever), which Laura won.

Next day, the weather was still bad, so we decided to continue our journey. We wanted to go to Cochabamba. Samaipata is actually on the old road from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba, but we were told that this road is not very good (and possibly not safe). Moreover, the buses that go along this route are not very comfortable. We therefore took a shared taxi to Santa Cruz, with the intention of catching a bus that would go along the new road to Cochabamba. The three-hour ride was very uncomfortable, because there were more people than intended in the taxi.

Santa Cruz de la Sierra is one of the largest and richest cities in Bolivia, and its inhabitants, along with the people in the rest of the Santa Cruz department are generally not supportive of the current government. There have even been calls for more autonomy of the region.

Rain in Santa Cruz

We stayed in Santa Cruz for a day and a half, and the whole time, it was raining. The highlight of our stay was a dinner with Cynthia, whom we'd met in the Amboró National Park (unfortunately, Gonzalo had to work late and could only meet us when we already needed to leave for the bus station). Cynthia took us to La Casa del Camba, and gave us a great overview of the local food (lots of meat and an astounding variety of potatoes).

All pictures are, us usually, available here.