Getting around in South America is not as easy, or inexpensive, as you might think. The continental flight game over here has nothing compared to Europe’s answer of Ryan Air and Easy Jet. From Cartagena, we flew to Bogota, then Santiago (to where we will soon return), then La Paz. It was a long overnight journey, spent mostly in cold and uncomfortable airports when we arrived, at last, in La Paz.
At an altitude of over 3500m above sea level, the atmosphere took some getting used to. La Paz is also essentially a basin where the buildings rise up the mountains surrounding it, until you reach El Alta. Our hotel was on one of these steep hills, so something as easy as going to the minimart and back would leave us completely winded. We took the altitude pills that I brought, but soon noticed that our feet and hands had strong and sporadic bouts of pins and needles. I also felt completely wiped – a fact that I cannot be sure whether to attribute to the altitude or the pills. Needless to say, this took away from our enjoyment of the city a bit. I should say, though, that I don’t think we would have been enamored with La Paz in any case. It felt a bit cold and seemed to lack some focus as a city. We explored, but sadly, on our full day in town, all the museums were randomly closed because a select group of administrators had chosen to celebrate the day as a pseudo-independence day, though the rest of the country had chosen a later date. What we did enjoy were the traditional outfits of the aboriginal peoples, which were quite typical of the andes. That, and the $3 lunches of rice and minced beef with egg.
We made the best of it and took a half-day trip out of the city to the other-worldly urban park aptly named Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). If you can ignore the village just beyond it, the white stalagmite terrain would indeed be something you could imagine seeing on the moon.(This is also where we discovered saltenas – like an empanada but more of a biscuit texture with a stew of either chicken or beef, with eggs and veggies inside. Hard to eat without spilling, but worth the effort!)
La Paz also served as a jumping off point for a six day Amazon jungle rafting tour that we had arranged. The first day was just transport to the amazon basin town of Guanay, from where we would depart on day two. Another couple from Spain and France had also booked and so the four of us, plus our scrappy and rugged guide, Ruban, to whom hygiene was an afterthought, would be traveling for five days along the rivers Kaka and Beni, on a homemade raft, until we reached the jungle town of Rurranabeque. When I say raft, I mean it in the most primitive sense. We all huddled on four square meters of branches and rubber tires. When we first saw what we would be taking, I think we all wondered why on earth we had decided to pay actual money to spend five days on something that Tom Hanks had built on Castaway. But we did. And the days were hot. Very hot. We purchased and wore sombreros to cover as much of ourselves as we could, and wore long shirts, socks and pants as we baked in the Amazonian heat. We swam in the brown water when we could to cool down, we ate fish that we caught and fruit that we picked. We camped in smelly little tents and wore mosquito netting from dusk until dawn to ward off the insanely adamant sand flies more than the mosquitos, none of whom seemed to mind our 30% deet, in which we cloaked ourselves.
On day four, we encountered a heavy storm and paddled through the rain until we found a vacant hut used by aboriginals to collect fruit. We made a fire, put on semi-dry clothes and slept on a bamboo table with mosquito nets around us while the thunder and lightning crashed on around us. In the morning, we were happy to see that a) the rain had stopped and b) the hut was still in one piece. Damp, dirty and tired, we were happy that this would be the day that we arrived in civilization. We floated into Rurranabeque in the early afternoon, desperate to shower and eat a meal prepared with clean hands. We were also happy to find that the hotel we had booked had – luxury of luxuries – a pool!
Once we cleaned off, the four of us met down there and shared some beers and reflected on the trip. Trying as it could be, we did have amazing moments with serene views of the rainforest, floating peacefully down the river. When the sun was behind a cloud, we could relax and appreciate the beauty of the amazon, the toucans flying above, the capybaras on the shore, the vastness of the wilderness. I would say that this trip was once in a lifetime… in both the sense that I never need to do it again but also in that it was an amazing opportunity to experience the rainforest in a unique way and I’m very thankful that we chose to do this. ❤