When I read that this town in the south of Bolivia had become a haven for European expats I was both intrigued and a little dubious. Does it come with a Starbucks and white, dreadlocked jugglers kind of dubious. Thankfully not and I absolutely get the appeal. If I chose to live somewhere in Bolivia it would be here, hands down.
It’s a small, super sleepy town but it has the necessary facilities; a small selection of good restaurants and a couple decent bars. The weather is pretty idyllic, hot but not oppressive, the altitude’s not bad either. There is a modest gringo population passing through to keep things fresh, some stay. That said you mostly see locals and they seem content relative to other places in Bolivia. The setting is utterly picturesque and, most appealingly, is located beside Parque Nacional Amboro, a diverse and fascinating region.
We arrive at the convenient hour of 3:30am. The bus driver removes our bags from the hold along with a sleeping man who gets out, throws up and shuffles inside the part of the bus where the humans are normally kept, the driver barely responds. After a failed, shouted window exchange with the place we wanted to stay we ended up at Aventuras Hostal. They have a VW camper in the yard surrounded by tent rooms. More importantly it has probably the most chill business owner I’ve ever seen and he let us in with a friendliness totally unmatched to being woken by strangers at 4am.
We slept in of course, got our bearings in the town and then took a walk to a charming little animal shelter just outside town. On the way we pass Italian style villas with gorgeous views, donkeys and horses, and a man selling French bread from a wheelbarrow. This place does not feel like the rest of Bolivia. The shelter has monkeys, parrots, coatis, a rhea, a deer and some kind of small jungle cat (not a jaguar kitten like one of our new friends thought, nor was it Baboo unfortunately. Cute though). As we chatted about tours with a couple of peeps from the hostel a big stinking peccary (furry pig thing) came over and spent about ten minutes roughly licking the sunscreen from my knees. There was much stench and Kim teased me for having stinky pig legs. Nice place, but don’t go on the slide, I have a sore bum and permanent rust marks on my shorts to show for that.
The format for tours here is that there is a set overall price, so the name of the game is to find as many people to join you as possible so you can split the cost into smaller chunks. With a group of 5-6+ it is real cheap but even as a pair it’s loosely affordable by western standards. Annoyingly you need a guide anytime you go into a national park in Bolivia or we’d do it without a tour. Generally fine but there are straightforward hikes on good paths that could be better enjoyed at your own pace in solitude. That being said they still have so much good nature here that it’s worth every measure to protect it.
Anyways, we organise a group for a spectacular looking walk along mountain ridges to the ‘Codo de Los Andes’ (elbow of the Andes, they turn south here) then hit the town. There is a festival on for the town’s founding and the square is full of stalls, drinks, food and people. On the big stage the compère does a long speech, he mostly seems to repeat that it’s the birth of the town today and then expects an applause, there is none. Afterwards a jam band takes over as we have some delicious choripan (chorizo roll). Unfortunately we were misinformed, thinking this was the preamble for the main event tomorrow which didn’t happen. So we missed out on hogging an awesome looking collection of Foosball tables, damnit!
Our tour the next day is with Tierra Madre, the owner is a really animated Italian man in a turtleneck. And I mean animated by Italian standards so…insane. We drove to a perfect little mountain lodge and had fresh lemon juice and a wander while we waited for the clouds to clear. The property, and lush valley at large, is full of fruit. Federico, the owner and our guide, shows us round the orchard stopping at the coca tree to give the leaves a sniff and say “This one is the most important!”.
We stroll around, it’s idyllic, but after two hours waiting the clouds haven’t moved so we decide to cut our losses and return. On the drive back Federico’s mood turns and he argues with a high velocity Spanish and confusing repetition that leaves us stunned and bewildered. Oh well, we get our refunds. Apparently he spent the rest of the day sulking and bitching to other clients. And if it wasn’t clear already, he was on all the coke. Deary me.
After that debacle we decide to carry on up to the local ruins, piling onto each other in the back of a tiny taxi. The dials say we’re going 180km/h and that the engine’s on fire, yet it feels suspiciously like we’re crawling up the steep mountainside. The fuel gauge, indicating empty, seems more accurate. We judder to a halt halfway but not to fear! The driver pops out, has a five minute tinker and by some magic we’re off again.
This is a suitable junction to have a little chat about Bolivian driving culture. Basically the roads are generally (though not exclusively) pretty bad and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of driving education. The traffic is highly aggressive, battling for every possible space, often against logic. For example there was a roadworks blocking one lane and our taxi approached at the same time as a lorry from the other side. Rather than waiting for the other vehicle to pass, the obvious quickest action, both drive through to the middle find themselves stuck and spend a while arguing about who should back out. There is no patience, aside from in the clogged cities you are never stuck behind a car for more than a few moments before the driver overtakes on the blind corner of a mountain bend. Seems like death is preferable to a minor delay here. Near Samaipata on one of these precarious mountain roads with barrierless, eroding drops to oblivion we have the rare treat of a driver waiting for us to pass. As we get close we see he’s about ten. I’m sure he’ll unlearn his driving courtesies by the time he hits puberty. Between Potosi and Sucre our conductor’s technique for dealing with these roads and saving his brakes is to take every hairpin bend at moderate speed and handbrake turn em. It feels a little rock n roll and works quite well to be fair, don’t think it’s the safest solution though. In short, Bolivia’s reputation for dangerous driving is deserved.
Despite this we get to the ruins and lunch at a viewpoint by the entrance which clearly gives good winds for the condors, as we see two fly close by and they are awesomely huge. The views from the hill are great and the ruins themselves are interesting if not mind-blowingly evocative.
The French are coming out in increasing force as our trip marches on, they are probably the most numerous nation we’ve met. We get drinks with two of them, two good ones. Conversation meets that ideal mix of veering between low and highbrow and we learn some fun card games that are promptly forgotten.
Next day we hike in Amboro’s cloud forest with Rolando, a much better guide from Tierra Madre. He looks like Michael Peña. It is gentle but really slippery with the mud, there are a few undamaging falls in the group. Michael explains the uses of various plants, including the ones that will give a wild high or aid an abortion. Crazy country, interesting to see how many of the myriad leaves have a use though. The best part walks up through a stream over slickrock lending a touch of adventure to the Jurassic Park backdrop.
A stunning and vertigo inducing Mirador is reached, complete with condor, and then a straightforward return. Good hike.
Kim and I watch a pirated copy of Sleeping with Other People (starring Annie’s Boobs) that night, our first homely evening together. We expected average and it modestly exceeded that.
Final day and hike was with Mr. Peña to Amboro’s volcanoes region. This one was a real stunner which started at a beautiful, lagoon side resort. (The first, and one of the only, top end places we see in Bolivia and it’s dead. The country is too rough, the roads too bumpy and the infrastructure too lacking for luxury travel, it hasn’t taken off yet. Backpackers rule here). The hike is varied; first the lagoon, a short climb, a vista laden ridge walk, forested descent and then wading through the river to a swimming hole. Amazing scenery, absolute bliss.
Samaipata has been a definite highlight, opportunities for adventure and relaxation abound. There is a lot I’d still like to do here so it becomes the first reason to return to Bolivia one day. To get to the Andean elbow without the rants of an angry cokehead…