The classic ‘Where’ve you been then, lad?’ chat comes up every time I check into a new hostel; which is usually followed up by ‘Did you not fancy Bolivia?’ seeing as I bypassed it this time to spend more time in Chile. GK and I went to La Paz and the Amazon in 2015 after our Inca Trail trek, and I simply ran out of time and money to go to the Uyuni salt-flats this time round, which is the last thing I’d like to do in this small, cheap, land-locked country.
Our trip ended in the sort of calamity that those who know us would have predicted was always going to happen; but it is credit to just how good Bolivia was that even the most medically, costly (both financial and time) ‘Disaster part’ couldn’t put a dampener on the ‘Dream part’. Take yourself back to 2015, a distant time when Donald Trump’s presidency, Brexit and Leicester City winning the Premier League were still things that we wrongly labelled ‘impossible, a joke’… (Video at the bottom)
The dream part
We checked into Onkel Inn, on the recommendation that a German in Cusco had spoke of it as a true party hostel. He was clearly practising his newly found sarcasm after hanging out with two Brits, because the hostel had all the atmsophere of a library. We spent two days trying to spend as much time as possible outside of the hostel; perusing alpaca foetuses in the witch markets, working out in a climbing wall and watching female wrestling in El Alto before we set off for the Amazon.
We took perhaps the most rickety plane I’ve ever taken, with just 16 seats in it, and had a turbulent hour-long flight up to Rurrenbaque where we were picked up in a Jeep adorned with ‘Flecha Tour’ branding. Inside the 4×4 were two lads from Watford (Jordan and Gizzi), a Frenchman named Cedric, and a Bolivian family; as well as our guide, Danny. We drove for hours into the jungle, stopping on the dirt tracks for toilet breaks and to let the blood back into our legs. After an uncomfortable journey, made better by the good company of Jordan and Gizzi, we arrived in Santa Maria and hopped into a motorised canoe.
On the water, we were in immediately surrounded by wild pink river dolphins, who followed us upstream to an embankment full of monkeys. Danny parked the boat close enough so that several could come aboard. “Probably should have got my rabies jab,” Gizzi said after a monkey nearly took a bite out of his finger whilst trying to eat the banana he was holding.
Just before nightfall, we arrived at our accommodation, an eco-lodge built on stilts, half in the water- half on the swampland of the Amazonas. Once the darkness had set in, we set out with torches, shining them onto the water and looking out for the menacing reflection of crocodiles eyes lurking in the shallows. I think we spotted 20 in an hour, enough for us to decide against a nighttime dip in the water.
The next day, we played an early morning game of football with two Amazonian kids we spotted whilst heading upriver. We were on route to a lagoon where dolphins are regularly spotted, but with 4 gringos and the Bolivian dad and eldest son equally keen to play, Danny pulled over and let us play a 5v5 match: Europe vs Bolivia on a pitch with homemade goalposts in a swamp clearing. Europe won 2-1.
Upriver, we found the lagoon that Danny promised, and were once again surrounded by dolphins. The family weren’t too sure having seen the amount of crocodiles in similar water last night, and their fear spread to the gringo part of the boat until Danny asked “How often will you have the chance to swim with dolphins in the Amazon?!”. We ripped off our shirts and jumped in, playing with a Coke bottle to entice the dolphins closer.
That evening, the chef at the eco-lodge declared that we must go out and fish for dinner unless we wanted just vegetables. We armed ourselves with handlines, barbed hooks and scraps of steak from last night’s dinner; and threw them into the water that we had swam in earlier that day. Within seconds, the Bolivian father pulled up an 8″ piranha; slopping it into a bucket and recasting. I pulled in an extra 3 red-bellies, Cedric chipped in with a catfish, and the father brought another 7″ beauty to the bucket. We gutted them, feeding the innards to the cannibalistic fish still in the water, and returned to base. They were eaten fried with lemon and salt on a bed of potatoes.
We had a few days in La Paz before our next tour, which we spent with Gizzi and Jordan in the Wild Rover hostel, much more raucous than Onkel Inn. We rented out motorbikes and quadbikes and headed for a quarry just outside of the city, ragging them around despite our lack of experience. This still stands as one of the best days of my life, and I was smiling constantly under my helmet whilst speeding over gravel with three sound people and the orange sun casting long shadows through the dust.
Everyone on the Gringo Trail in Bolivia talks about or carries a copy of ‘Marching Powder‘ – I’d read mine on the plane and GK was currently half way through, so we headed up to San Pedro prison where it was written. We found an African-American man amongst the latinos, Crazy Dave, who was until recently a convict within the prison for smuggling cocaine into the USA from Bolivia. Released, but denied citizenship in either countries and battling a cocaine addiction (the prison knowingly makes its own Class A powder inside its factory, smuggling it out to the streets via the prisoners children on their way to school), Dave makes his living by giving tours outside the prison, confirming/correcting Thomas McFadden’s stories/untruths, and rapping about his experiences. He was a truly gripping storyteller – two years on and I’m still yet to find anyone who tells a tale so enticingly – so we bought him his groceries as payment (he doesn’t trust himself with money) and returned back to the hostel.
Our final activity was the notorious Death Road, or North Yungus Road. We were picked up again, and drove for hours out of the city. Eventually we came to a huge canyon, and were given our steeds for the day: Kona Stinky’s for GK and I (we spent the extra £15 on full suspension bikes), Kona Shred’s for everyone else. We started off on tarmacced roads to get used to the bikes and their overly-responsive brakes before going off road and down the dirt track that clings to the mountainside and has claimed so many lives. From 6,000m to 1,500m in just a few hours, it was a hair raising experience with my adrenaline levels just slightly lower than the dirt bike day that we had earlier in the week. GK and I seemed to enjoy it more than the others, which I put down to our more comfortable bikes.
The disaster part
I woke up on the ’17th’ and checked our flight time for our journey home on the ’18th’. “Ha!” came a snort from Merkel on top bunk, who we had woken up whilst coming in on the previous night, “It’s the 18th today boys!”. We had missed our flight home and (for the first time in our lives) stuck meticulouly to the budget, with only £20 each remaining for the taxi to the airport. I punched the bunk bed, shouting a single obscenity; GK put his head in his hands.
My yelling attracted Samaritans and a group of Irish lads came to offer cigarettes and plans. Bribe a doctor and get a note for food poisoning. Say you were stuck on Uyuni with the strikes, I’ll send you my pictures to prove you were there. Say you were caught up in a traffic due to the Independence Day parade (this is the story I went with when explaining to my parents until the travel insurance money came in).
We checked out of the hostel as quick as we could and went straight to the airport. I don’t like calling home in an emergency until I have sorted out a plan in order to keep my parents’ blood pressure at a healthy level; something that GK agreed with. The only flights that day – economy was full so we’d have to fly business – would set us back £3,500 each, but if we waited until the next day, we could get to Miami for £150, and from Miami to London would only be £200. I’d miss my mum’s birthday on the 19th and be cutting it fine for my first day as a teacher on the 20th. We took it as our only available option, withdrawing from the ‘Disaster fund’, that I’ve promised myself to set up for when my own children go travelling.
I then took an ‘altitude’ pill from a dodgy looking man to deal with the headache that had been plaguing me since Death Road. I don’t remember much after that, but GK tells me how I went “as yellow as Bart Simpson” while ripping off my clothes before having a seizure. As I came round, half dressed and rocking back on my chair, he was holding a cup to my face to catch the vomit with a look of utmost trust in that I wouldn’t get it on his hands. A well-intentioned-but-slightly-corrupt stranger managed to steal a bottle of Coke for me whilst the cafe owner was caught up in the madness to replenish my sugar levels (the same cafe owner GK tried to give a cupful of my sick to – “¿Donde?”) and we couldn’t find the mysterious dealer afterwards to find out what he gave me. Despite the seizure, it did make my headache go away.
We missed our connecting flight from Miami due to the first plane being delayed; and stood impatiently whilst American Airlines tried to rebook everyone. “Just give us any, any, flight back to England and we can make it work!”, I remember GK pleading. They paid for the next flight home, as well as putting us up in a hotel for the night with $40 of food vouchers (which was bumped up to $60 after a kind stranger left $20 on our table ‘to get us further down the road’). Having a queen sized bed and a hot shower was a welcome distraction from the incoming anxiety about missing my first day of work as a teacher.
We eventually landed in London at 7.45am on the Tuesday (the children in my class turn up at 8.50am); and after half an hour of more obscenities when the captain declared that the passenger walkway for disembarking was broken and ten minutes of sprinting through the arrivals corridors and customs, we were in GK’s dad’s car, and fast-laning it along the M4 to Newbury. In the end I was only 15 minutes late, which is testament to Phil’s driving; but I doubt my school were expecting me to turn up quite like I did. Badly trimmed beard after using nail clippers and a travel mirror, unironed shirt, unshowered and sweaty from my run. First impressions, hey?
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