Flying La Paz to Rurrenabaque

There are two airlines that fly the 45 minute La Paz-Rurrenabaque route. TAM is slightly cheaper than Amaszonas, but they have fewer departures. You also have to go to the military airport, which is next to the normal airport in El Alto (a 20Bs taxi ride from outside the civilian airport boundary fence or a 50Bs ride from within). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but TAM was like any other airline. Actually, it was better because we were given a sandwich and drink, which American Airlines has failed to provide on a five hour flight! The plane was small, but nothing compared to the tiny 19-seater that I returned on with Amaszonas. Before taking off, pigs had to be chased from the grass runway.

I met a guy on our jungle tour who’d had his flight turned back just before landing because of bad weather in Rurrenabaque. In his words, “it was like a cheap sight-seeing flight”. Take off begins at 4,000m and it’s all down from there. But first you have to cross the Cordillera Real and the views are spectacular. I’ve never flown at the same height as a mountain peak before!

Unfortunately my TAM plane did not look like this.

We were greeted to a rainbow after a delay due to weather conditions.

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Mount Illimani towers over El Alto, the largely indigenous town (and site of La Paz’s airport) which sits above the city on the altiplano.

For information about what we did in Rurrenabaque, see our blog post.

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SCAM ALERT! (or the time my bag nearly got stolen)

Where? The bus from Ica to Lima. It probably happens on the reverse route, too. But it could happen anywhere.

What happened? When we got on the bus, I put my bag on the floor at my feet. This bag contained my most valuable items. The bag I could afford to lose was stored under the bus. After picking up some more passengers outside the station, a chubby round-faced man with a buzz cut tapped me on the shoulder.

“Water,” he pointed on the floor where my bag was.

“Si, agua,” I responded.

“Water,” he touched the water with his finger and then touched my hand with the same finger as if I was an idiot.

I checked my bag to see if something was leaking, but nothing was coming out of it.

“Water,” he repeated and placed my bag on the storage above our seats.

I thought maybe he was just looking out for me, but it didn’t feel right. A couple minutes later, I decided to take my bag down and put it on my lap. When I looked for it, it wasn’t above me, but had slid down towards the center of the bus. Or so I thought. It turns out the thief had moved it closer to the exit. I kept the bag on my lap for the rest of the trip.

Later, when I got to Lima I overheard a Swedish guy who was talking about having had his bag stolen. I asked him what happened and the set-up was exactly the same. The thieves got on the bus at a stop on the street and only traveled a short distance. By the time he realized what had happened it was too late. It was the same route, but a different bus company. He lost his passport, camera and personal journal, among other items.

How to avoid this?

This is pretty easy. Just keep your bag on your lap. Don’t let anyone who doesn’t work for the bus touch your bag, and even then, make sure you have an eye on it at all times. If you’re really paranoid, go with a more expensive bus line like Cruz del Sur. They have very high security and don’t pick up passengers outside the station.

I’m a British Bird, innit?

All over South America, people have trouble with my name. ‘Bird’ is hard to pronounce for Spanish speakers. ‘Rosanna’ shouldn’t be a problem, and yet it is. Most people call me Roxana. Even when my name is written down, they read it out loud as Roxana. I’ve just started introducing myself that way now because it’s easier.

My passport page is a whole other story. I think the layout must confuse people, because they often have difficulty finding my name and knowing which is the first and which is the surname. It’s usually misinterpreted as Rosanna British, but this bus ticket is my favourite.

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Bolivian bus tips

Someone recently asked me for tips about overnight buses in Bolivia. Try to get firsthand information as much as possible. By this, I mean ask other people you meet what their experiences have been. There are tons of horror stories out there, and I’ve had some pretty bad rides myself, but I’ve also had good journeys too (and no-one ever tells stories about those). Buses vary greatly between routes and companies (even within companies sometimes), so take the chance to get detailed information when you can.

GENERAL TIPS

Buy bus tickets at the bus station. You’ll be able to checkout the different companies and maybe save a little commission by not going through an agency. Often, companies won’t sell tickets in advance (the night before the day of travel is usually the earliest, but I have managed a week in advance once). A very general rule is that every hour of the journey costs 10Bs (e.g. La Paz to Sucre cost 120Bs and takes about 12 hours). Of course, you might get stuck in a blockade or diversion in which case your journey could be much longer.

Splurge for cama. Like other countries in South America, Bolivia has different levels of comfort and price. I’ve been on a cama bus that was as good as any in Argentina, but I’ve also been on a cama that most definitely wasn’t. However, if you can afford it (which you probably can in Bolivia) then go for the best quality you can. If it doesn’t turn out to be so great, just think of how awful it could have been if you’d gone for the cheaper seat.

Bring snacks. Sometimes buses stop where you can buy food, sometimes they don’t. Most of the time people get on the buses to sell you food (sandwiches, bread, dried snacks, jelly etc.), but it’s not always the most appetizing or hygienic. Plus, if your journey gets delayed (see above) you’ll be stuck on the bus getting hungrier and hungrier if you didn’t bring anything. Better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.

Go to the bathroom when you can. I’ve yet to see a bus that has a bathroom, or, if it does have one, that passengers aren’t allowed to use it. Buses do stop for toilet breaks, but not regularly. They might be at a service station where you have to pay to use the (usually poor) facilities, or they might just be in the middle of nowhere with a few bushes for cover. In this latter case, I recommend not straying too far (despite the desire for privacy) because once the driver decides to leave, he won’t wait for you.

Dress for all temperatures. Some buses have heating, some don’t and the nights in Bolivia can get very cold. If you’re travelling in the altiplano, take a blanket or sleeping bag with you. I’ve even worn scarf, hat, gloves and multiple socks before! Likewise with air conditioning, it’s not guaranteed so wear layers that you can strip off if it gets too hot.

Carry all valuables on your person. I’ve never heard stories of crime on Bolivian buses (unlike in Argentina), but it’s better not to risk anything. Have them easily accessible because there are occasionally police checks (though mostly only during the day time). Don’t leave anything on the bus if you disembark during a rest stop.

Take medicine with you. I class medicine as valuables. Once you get sick in Bolivia, you’ll understand why. Especially with the lack of toilets on buses, you’ll need loperamide and motion sickness pills if you do get sick. Throw in some aspirin for good measure too.

Don’t travel during holiday periods. Not only is this a busier time, but drivers are more likely to be drunk or hungover. Note that Bolivians tend to start their partying a day or two before the official holiday and continue a few days later too.

SPECIFIC JOURNEYS

Uyuni to La Paz:
100Bs, about 12 hours. I don’t remember the name of the company but it was one of several similar ones in Uyuni.
I have never been so cold in my life. They said there was heating, but there wasn’t, although they did give us blankets. I remember seeing frost on the inside of the window at one point. My legs were numb from the knees down, partly from cold and partly because there was no space to stretch (and my legs are not even that long). The road was incredibly bumpy in some parts (I kept dreaming of earthquakes) and we made detours to go and deliver some sacks to farms in the middle of nowhere. The only other option was a tourist bus that was almost three times the price. If I was doing it again, I think I might go for that.

La Paz to Sucre:
120Bs, 12 hours, El Dorado.
I bought cama, but when I got on I realised it was cama ejecutivo. It was a super new bus with really comfy seats that reclined almost totally horizontal. Plus heating! I didn’t even need a blanket. The road seemed to be in good condition as I don’t remember any uncomfortable patches.

La Paz to Santa Cruz:
175Bs, 17 hours, El Dorado & Bolívar.
Both were cama but El Dorado was a much newer, cleaner bus. The heating was on very low so I was cold until we reached lower altitude. When I returned from Santa Cruz, I saw at least two cockroaches on the Bolívar bus. The seat was also less comfortable despite it also being a cama, and it was a colder journey. I might have just had bad luck, because I saw other Bolívar buses which looked nice. The road is very curvy in parts (this time I dreamed about being on a roller-coaster) as it needs to make switchbacks between the high and low altitude areas.

Sucre to Tarija:
80Bs, 12 hours. There were only two companies running this route and they both looked the same in terms of quality.
They insisted it was cama, but it was more like semi-cama. It wasn’t the worst bus, but not the nicest either. The departure was at 4pm and arrived inconveniently at 4am in Tarija. I think if you’re not travelling between major cities, the schedules aren’t made to suit passengers. This journey included a bathroom stop ‘in nature’.

Tarija to Potosí:
80Bs, 10 hours. Don’t remember the company name.
Again, there was no choice about schedules so it arrived at an inconvenient time of around midnight. There were lots of companies running the route, mostly semi-cama. Nothing stands out about this journey; neither bad nor good.

Potosí to La Paz:
100Bs, about 9 hours, El Dorado.
I’ve used El Dorado quite often, and they’ve always been good. They were also the only company in Potosí who would sell us a ticket the day before rather than the day of travel. You have to go to the new bus station on the outskirts of town, not the old bus station where many buses will drop you off. It’s a cold overnight journey on the altiplano.

La Paz to Rurrenabaque:
I haven’t done this route. It’s an extension of the Death Road, except after Coroico it hasn’t been rebuilt yet. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has travelled there has returned by plane, even if they originally intended to take the bus.

What’s your experience with Bolivian buses? Are there any routes you would avoid? Any particular companies you would recommend? Leave a comment and help add to this list.

A boat ride in Valdivia

I loved Valdivia. Not in spite of, but because of the damp, misty weather. I loved the fish market we stumbled upon and the sea lions that surprised us. I loved the historical museum with the attendant who let us dry our shoes on the hot radiators (and this after her finding we had sneakily placed them there without asking. I am ashamed of this – really! – but my feet were just so wet).

One afternoon we took a tour boat. With a cold beer in hand and damp air around us, we rode slowly for a couple of hours through a hazy landscape of autumn foliage and mirror-like water. We got to an island somewhere, with an abandoned house that had been damaged first by earthquake and then by fire. We drank some homemade herb-flavored alcohol and then got back on the boat and stopped at a tiny village where we went into a wooden church. It was almost dark by this time and an old lady was selling miniature marzipan fruit outside as we left.

I could say that I don’t remember any concrete facts because it happened over a year ago. Or maybe it’s because of the dream-like landscape or the garbled Chilean Spanish.

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Catch a boat at the Feria Fluvial, 8,000 Chilean pesos per person for a four hour tour.

Navimag ferry, Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt

The Navimag is part cargo ship, part passenger ferry that travels through southern Chile. We boarded in Puerto Natales (together with a lorry full of cows and a few other, more silent, containers) and traveled north to Puerto Montt.

The journey took us through narrow channels, past misty green islands with cascading waterfalls. We saw a glacier, a shipwreck, a tiny village where it rains at least once a day. We rode on the open sea, with rolling waves that sent people to bed or out on deck in search of fresh air. We passed between south america’s largest island on one side and the distant Andes on the other, while sea lions and sea gulls floated by.

We built our days around meal times and lectures on glacier formation and the flora and fauna of Patagonia. We stood on the bridge with the captain and examined charts and radar as if we knew what was going on. We slept comfortably in curtained bunks and washed in hot water that turned off after one minute. We read books, played cards and drank beer in the little lounge bar.

We had a good time.

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4 night/3 day journey from $300 for a dorm bed, all inclusive: accommodation, meals, entertainment (lectures & films). Buy tickets online or in the Navimag office in Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales.

Quebrada de las Conchas

North of Salta, Argentina lies Quebrada de las Conchas. “Quebrada” from “quebrar” (to break) refers to a gorge, in this case mounds of rust-colored rock, broken at sharp angles by millions of years of erosion. “Conchas” are the shells, or marine fossils, left on the ocean floor before the gorge was elevated, along with the rest of the Andean range, by the friction of tectonic plates.

It only rains in the gorge about five days a year, including the day we visited. I don’t know how it would have looked if it hadn’t, but I was happy not to have the lines of exotic rock columns and sky blurred by sunlight. The sprinkling rain darkened the scattered shrubs, making the whole place look positively fertile.

Route 40, Bariloche to Perito Moreno

Things I see while riding the bus for 12 hours:

Tussocks of grass, soft and round and pointed and prickly grow in clumps in the grey-brown gravel and sand. Stones with splashes of white or black tar-like patches sit amongst a landscape of green, grey and a dozen shades of brown and yellow. Faraway slate-violet hills rest under dark clouds that hang so low I feel I could reach up and touch them.

Picket fences are the only things of human scale in the landscape. Dirty grey sheep watch the bus go past. Sandy coloured guanacos and a few blonde horses trot by. A dead thing is caught over a barbed wire fence, its faded golden fleece hanging loose. Rocks mimic crouching cats, birds of prey and dead bodies.

A small grey fox runs along the roadside. Long-legged, long-necked choique with stringy grey feathers gallop away like mini dinosaurs. A large brown hare, black spots on the back of its ears, leaps under a fence. Buzzards perch on posts and a pair of condors circle above.

Roadside shrines are wrapped in red cloth. The burnt-out shell of an over-turned van lies in the black remains of its inferno. Empty bottles shine in the gravel and plastic bags flap, caught on spiky twigs. A yellow digger sends up dust clouds and a large pit smoulders in the grey earth.

As the world begins to darken, square shapes appear. A two way road is lined by single storey buildings. A small frontier town appears out of the dust as a grid pattern of streets emerges. Perito Moreno, we’ve arrived.

Riding a boat into a waterfall

At Iguazu, we rode a boat into the waterfalls. Like this….

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It was more expensive and far shorter than the ecological tour I’d wanted to take (not running due to water levels being too low), but it was definitely worth it.

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Not only did we ride into this impressive cascade, we also rode into the second biggest section of the waterfalls. Twice!

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See that huge cloud of white spray? That’s where the boat took us. Those few seconds we spent surrounded by water were a tumult of noise, whiteness, and great pressure as the torrent gushed down on top of us. It was amazing. Everyone was grinning and dripping with water as we left the boat.

Aventura Náutica
Cost: 125 pesos
Location: Argentinian side of Iguazu Falls