Farewell to Bolivia, a Quick Jungle Trip, and a Week in Peru

First Friday

My last Friday in Bolivia also happened to be the first friday of August. There is a tradition that the first friday of every month is a day for being grateful for the past month’s successes and lessons while praying for a good successful month to come. I had missed the chance to attend one of these ceremonies my first two months so I had to go this time. We went to a community center yard on the north end of the city to take part in some of the rituals. The most common is the koa which is a plate of different “gifts” including handicrafts and coca leaves that is then burnt as an offering to the “Pacha Mama”. Pacha Mama is a kind of deity probably best translated as Mother Earth. For hours we danced around the fire while men and women dressed in traditional garb played indigenous instruments similar to flutes and drums. We also drank chicha or fermented corn from buckets sitting all around the space. I really enjoyed taking part in the rituals and learning a bit about indigenous culture.

Villa Tunari

One thing I really wanted to do while in South America was to to go on an Amazon jungle trek. Unfortunately, my last weekend in Cochabamba had arrived and I had yet to do it. I settled for the closest substitute – Villa Tunari. At the edge of the Chapare jungle, Villa Tunari is jungle lite. You can get the feel of the Amazon including the humidity and the mosquitos but without having to rough it too much. A group of eight of us – much smaller groups than previous trips because many volunteers had finished their service term by this point – decided to go for the big “Feria de Pescado” or Fish Festival. (I later learned that among some locals it is known as the “Feria de Pecado” or Sin Festival. No idea why they would call it that.) We arrived after a 4 hour bus ride to discover that most hostels were fully booked and the ones that weren’t cost over 250 Bs per person (almost $40). So we split up into pairs to scour the town for any potential sleeping location including campgrounds. After considering several options we settled on a place that was under construction; I mean the second floor was bare brick with unfinished walls. Our dorm style room had green mesh in place of windows and came with three beds and a mattress on the floor. But it was only 60 Bs ($9) so we were happy with it. We only planned to be there for a few hours anyway.

During the day, the festival was actually about fish. There were stands all over this big open field with all kinds of pescado. We didn’t know this at lunch time though and we were famished so we just ate at a local restaurant near our hostel. It wasn’t until after lunch that we heard about the actual festival site and we heard the real festivities began after dark. With a couple of hours to kill we decided to go to another hotel where we paid about $3 to swim in the pool.

Night fell quickly and it was time for the real party. By now there was music blasting and a crowd had formed a large dance floor in a big open field. We had dinner first – both the sabalo and the surubi were delicious. Then it was time to dance and it was apparent that most of the crowd had been drinking all day. We were all really tired though, a combination of lack of sleep and too much pool volleyball plus the music wasn’t really inspiring so most of us left to go to bed by midnight. Also, we had wisely scheduled a rafting trip for 7:30 the next morning. A couple of us though wandered the main plaza first. The square was surrounded by cars each one blasting their own party playlist and claiming their piece of sidewalk and street as a dance floor. We moved from space to space dancing to a song we liked then heading off to the next when we wanted something different. It was like going to a club with 100 different rooms with their own DJ’s. It’s too bad our own DJ Cheez Grater wasn’t around. By about 2 AM when the last of our group headed back to the house, there were already people passed out all over each other on the benches. Apparently though the party was still going at 7 AM because there was still music from the plaza when we got up the next morning.

Rafting was a lot of fun despite being a little hungover. We split into 2 rafts along with our three guides. The river pulled us in a few times but we didn’t really mind. At one point both the guides in my raft fell in leaving us wondering what to do as we headed for a large rock. So I just started yelling random directions assuming that paddling furiously was probably better than doing nothing. We still went over a couple of rocks but none of us fell and we eventually got our guides back in. It was really funny after the fact. It was also a little taste of the jungle.

Later we did what I really came for which was to see some monkeys. We went to a monkey sanctuary and as soon as we got in we saw a handful of them just jumping around the trees above us. A little further uphill we came across two spider monkeys grooming each other in the middle of the path. As we approached, one of them hopped away but the other larger one, about the size of a small dog, climbed up on a log bench. I slowly got closer until I was sitting right next to her. I tried whispering hello when all of sudden she climbed into my lap and lay down. It was incredible! I was too taken aback to do anything at first but then I tried copying the grooming tactics and she seemed to enjoy it. For a few minutes she just relaxed but as more people came around she jumped down and rolled on her back like a puppy wanting a belly rub. Clearly she was used to tourists. We were all fascinated taking turns petting her. Eventually she decided to return to the trees but it was really cool of her to hang out for a bit. Another awesome weekend in Bolivia but sadly my last.

A Tearful Goodbye

It was the time of year when most volunteers were heading back to their home countries and to the “real world”. After saying adios to several people who had become close friends over my 10 weeks, it was finally time for the few remaining to bid me farewell. I definitely had tears in my eyes as I left to catch a bus to La Paz. I posted a farewell note to facebook but I’ll reproduce it here too:

Cochabamba, Bolivia you will always have a place in my heart. I have lived in many places but only a couple felt like home. Cochabamba is one of them. I had only ten weeks but the experience was so much better than I ever imagined.
To all the amazing people I met and friends I made especially at SB, I will miss you all dearly. I hope and believe our paths will cross again. Please keep in touch and if you are ever on the east coast of the US let me know and we will meet up.
I’m also going to miss the kids I worked with at PAI Tarpuy, the unfailing daily sunshine, the ”buen vivir” love of life mindset that Bolivians seem to be born with, almuerzos completos for $2, trufis for $0.25, stray dogs (the cute ones), api con pastel, being covered in dust all the time but not caring, random holidays almost every week, language exchanges with British and Australians, culture exchanges with just about everyone, girls and gays nights, late nights at La Marka and Pimienta followed by a visit to the cholita for choripan, and last but not least my home in Cocha: Casa Bolivar.
And lot of other things I won’t realize I miss until I’m back in the US.

I will not say goodbye, but as is the custom in Bolivia ”Hasta luego!”
Till we meet again: Un abrazo y un beso.

It’s true that Cocha felt like home. I think I’ve only really felt like that before in Southern California. I’ll miss it for sure.

Peru

Before returning to the States, I wanted to do a little bit of traveling. I have wanted to visit Machu Picchu ever since I saw a National Geographic special on it about 10 years ago. Now I was so close I couldn’t leave South America without making that trip. Usually the trip starts in Cusco, Peru the closest big city. So I headed to Cusco and spent a day exploring it. I spent a lot of time walking around and just admiring the really old buildings. There’s a small Cristo statue overlooking the city called Blanco Cristo (loosely translated White Jesus) so I hiked up to it and looked down at the city from Cristo’s viewpoint. Later I joined a city tour where we explored several sites of Inca ruins – sort of a pre-cursor to Machu Picchu. It turns out many of the old colonial Spanish buildings were built over older Inca sites which the conquistadors tore down. In many of these buildings you can still see the Inca work covered by colonial work and often with additions from modern builders. It all makes for a great history lesson. Speaking of history, I forgot to mention ealier that I also visited the Inca museum which takes you from pre-Inca civilizations like the Tiwanaku through the establishment and expansion of the Inca empire up to the Spanish conquest. It was a small museum but really interesting.

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While in Peru I had to try to the most popular soda Inca Kola. It tastes like bubblegum so I didn’t really like it. But our city tour guide told us it was the most popular drink in Peru outselling even Coca Cola – so Coca Cola now owns it.

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The next day I got up early to make my way to Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo), the town outside Machu Picchu. There is no road into the town – there are hiking trails and there are train tracks. The trails are restricted to people on official tours and the train from Cusco costs about $100 for a three hour ride. The train is run by a foreign monopoly and is thought to be the most expensive train in the world {per hour} with prices up to $700. The tours are also really expensive and sell out weeks in advance. There is a cheaper way to get in though. You can bus to one of the small towns nearby and walk. From Santa Teresa it’s about 4 hours or from Hidroelectrico it’s 2. The catch is that those last 2 hours from Hidroelectrico to Aguas Calientes you have to walk along train tracks. That sounded like a cool adventure to me. I also wanted to see the towns between Cusco and Machu Picchu in the region known as the Sacred Valley so it was a win-win for me.

I took buses to the small towns of Pisaq, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo and Santa Maria before taking a taxi to Santa Teresa and another taxi to Hidroelectrico. The towns were cool and quaint and I spent a little time walking around each. Each one has ruins to see as well but I didn’t have time for that. Around 9 pm, I started down the train tracks in almost total darkness using my cellphone to light the way. There are parts where the tracks go over a river and if you’re not careful you can fall through. Pretty dangerous if you think about it, so I didn’t. After walking alone for about 20 minutes, I caught up to two local guys. It crossed my mind that they might be waiting to rob some idiot walking alone but as I got closer they sped up so they were probably even more worried of me robbing them. After a few minutes I caught up and they asked me where I was from. A little more questioning back and forth satisfied all of us that we weren’t looking for trouble and we continued on together. They were cooks for a local restaurant but they had worked late and missed the last train so they chose to walk the tracks. They shared some Bob Marley from their Ipods and we sang along to pass the time. Their flashlight ran out of battery about an hour in so they were grateful for my cellphone flashlight. We parted ways once we reached the edge of town but I was glad to have met them and had some company for the journey. The funny thing is we will probably never recognize each other if we met again in the light.

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Machu Picchu

My next order of business was to find a place to sleep for the night. I wasn’t expecting any beds to be available since it was after midnight but what’s the harm in checking. Well, there was nothing as expected so after about 30 minutes, I switched focus to getting dinner. I found a Chinese place which helped calm my stomach and then I was faced with the choice of sleeping on a bench in the main square or heading to a campground. As a last resort, I asked the security guard at the plaza if she knew where I could sleep. She said she knew a restaurant manager who sometimes rented out his spare room. I went to talk with him and it was my lucky night because he had a bed for just $4! For the three hours that I slept, it was great but I needed to get an early start to see the sunrise over the ruins.

There’s a bus to the top but at 5 AM there was already a crazy long line for it so I figured it would be faster to hike. The bus takes 30 minutes, I did the hike in an hour but then I got stuck behind hundreds of people at the entry gate so I didn’t quite get to the ruins before sunrise. Still it was truly worth the hype once I got to the main site. It was so extensive it could take an entire day just to explore the main part but I also wanted to see the Temple of the Sun and hike to the top of  Machu Picchu mountain. The Temple of the Sun was cool but nothing special compared to the rest. The mountain was an exhausting hour-long climb up a set of never-ending stairs. But all along were beautiful viewpoints each one more incredible than the next. At the very top was an exhilirating 360 degree view looking down on the ruins and on Huayna Picchu. I just sat there for at least 30 minutes admiring the views…and also too drained to move.

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Eventually I had to leave and I took the really expensive train back to Cusco because I couldn’t risk having a bus break down and missing my flight back to the US. The train was nice with windows curving up into the ceiling and came with a snack. They also had a traditional dance show followed by a fashion show to sell alpaca clothing. I was tuned out though. In less than 2 days I would be back in the States to spend a week in Los Angeles. My crazy adventure in South America had finally come to a close. I’m glad I have this blog to look back on in the distant future when I’m wondering whether or not this all really happened.

Thanks for reading!

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