*There’s no easy way to sum up the twelve days we just experienced in Bolivia. Or maybe it is, but it takes a wiser person than I to figure out how to neatly package 12 days of thrills, misadventures, Bolivian hospitality, and close calls into a readable blog post. Still, I’m going to try my best to explain where and why we went, and try and fill you in on some of our most notable memories. Here’s hoping that it comes out the least bit comprehensible.
When you think Bolivia, you probably think Andes, Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Potosí, maybe even Madidi National Park or even El Beni. Me, too. I still do. And I definitely hope to see those sides of Bolivia in the next five-ten years. But now, when I think of Bolivia, I also think of the the cosmopolitan and honk-happy city of Santa Cruz and the Bolivian Chaco.
Our purposes on this Chaco trip were threefold, just as they were on our recent Santiago del Estero Chaco trip. Two of us were interested in bird-watching. The other two of us tried our best. Often, Jordan and I went out on the bird walks; sometimes we stayed in the car. What? I had to journal at some point, right?
The other two of us were interested in collecting agricultural points using the GPS, the field notebook, and my little coding system. All together, Jordan (and I) collected about 500 agricultural data points. I’ve never seen so much sorghum in all my life. I plan on writing a post specifically focusing on what I learned/saw about agriculture in the region, so will save many of my other observations for that post.
And finally, I don’t think that any of us were opposed to just a wee bit of sightseeing, especially when the weather or vehicle (poor Kangoo) didn’t allow for fieldwork at the time. Sometimes, we were lucky enough that a sight would be on the way to a [fieldwork] site. And even better, sometimes a [fieldwork] site was also quite a beautiful sight.
There were places at which the others needed to/really wanted to take data. Beyond that, our itinerary was…I’ll say, flexible. We had no hotel reservations, no lists of guide book recommendations.** Spontaneity may be great for you, but it generally goes against my planning nature. Still, when you have no other options, you learn to let go as best as possible, worrying only slightly (and on one occasion more than slightly) about where you will lay your head. And when you worry, you pray, and then your trust in that prayer.
We split our time between budget hotels, hostels (if anyone wants recommendations for Cabezas, Santa Cruz, or San José de Chiquitos, feel free to contact me via FB or e-mail), and camping in national parks or along the side of the road.
That’s where and why and how we traveled. I should also note that we pretty much disregarded all of the advice provided by guide books. I’m not saying that I did it without hesitation or that I recommend doing it. Some was done out of necessity, some was done because, well, I was lazy and didn’t feel like insisting. We bought food on the street. We basically drank water from any spigot found. We ate raw produce that had been washed in that unfiltered water. We approached stranger after stranger to ask for directions. And generally, all of this seemed to be just fine in the end.***
As for some of our highs, hiccups, and notable experiences, Jordan and I had a real laugh while creating the following graph. It’s a little hard to read, so I’ll fill you in on some of the details below.
We drove through the beautiful Argentine provinces of Salta and Jujuy. We stopped before the border and stayed at a hotel, where I shared the room with Jordan and a few scurrying cockroaches. The roaches weren’t a big deal, but the next morning the power in the whole city went out. Showering by the light of one tiny flashlight is difficult. Even worse, no power at the border crossing makes for complications. We had unbelievable difficulties securing our Bolivian visas. Finally, by the end, we were so thankful to be granted them that we didn’t even bother complaining that they were screwing us over with the exchange rate (and although the price for the Bolivian visas are given in US dollars, they were not accepted). There was also the issue of locking the keys in the vehicle that day. If you need a locksmith in Yacuiba, we can help you out.
Once we finally got into Bolivia, we bought provisions, which included 4 kilos of chaqeño cheese. It was huge. It was fuerte. But it was delicious. And somehow, this cheese needs no (some say very little, but we had none) refrigeration. By day four it was sweating. It had to be left in the sun to dry out. I thought I’d stop eating int by day six. Nope. By day 12 it was still with us. We all ate some on day 11. And we all survived. The cheese was good, honestly. Still, because we had so much of it and it lasted for so long, it became a bit of a running gag.
One of the best parts of the trip came early on. We were camping near a less-than-busy road. After a supper (complete with cheese), we headed to the road and laid on our backs, staring up at La Via Láctea (the Milky Way), passing chocolate bars back and forth in awesome silence. I’ve never seen the stars shine more brightly. It was glorious and breathtaking and disorienting not to see all of the constellations we are used to seeing in the northern hemisphere.
Also, not listed on the graph are the many sunrises and sunsets that we were privy to.
The bird watching stops were more like nature walks for me, though certainly I tried to pay attention to birds and identify what I could. (More about the birds we didn’t see in a separate post). The scenery was often gorgeous (lake photos above at a bird observation stop, for example). But there were points when the bugs (ticks, biting flies, etc.) got to me. I let out only two girly screeches during the trip–one for this snake (with good reason, it was within two feet of me when I turned the flashlight on and it is poisonous) and one for this tarantula who made its way into my path several times in one night. The two-inch country cockroaches seemed less sketchy than those we’d seen a few nights prior.
There were also really fun, non-bird wild animal sightings. But I’m saving those for the bird watching/nature walking post. The suspense!
The most “stretching” night of the trip came on Jordan’s birthday.^ Bolivia sells gasoline at two different prices–a higher one for foreigners. One stop would only give it to us at all in a container and then we had to funnel/siphon in. One of us had the unfortunate task of sucking on the end of the tube. We were driving on windy gravel roads where the livestock have the right of way, night was falling, a storm was headed our way (meaning that we had to beat the rain or be stuck for days). One of us wasn’t feeling well presumably because of the gasoline, the road was intense, the lightning beautiful but reminding us of the threat. Finally, we reached asphalt. Oh, the relief. And then we pulled into the town of Abopó, which had one hotel. I don’t know what to say. Maybe we misread the town; maybe we misread the situation. But the place made me nervous. And I’ll leave it at that. The relief I’d felt about getting off the dirt road quickly evaporated. Sure, I was eating a tasty and fresh fried sabalo and washing it down with Paceña, but I still wasn’t at ease. I didn’t feel at ease until we left the next day. After that night, there were still many mishaps, but generally, things were fine. No other situations made me feel particularly nervous, even if they did seriously change our plans.
For example, the next day our car broke down in Santa Cruz. We learned that the Paraguayan visas would cost three times more than we thought and maybe wouldn’t come for six days (weekend and holiday thrown in there). We poorly navigated and ended up in the wrong place. We struggled to find gasoline (gas does not equal gasoline!), almost ran out, an animal or two may have made contact with a wheel or bumper, and two of the doors on the vehicle might have stopped opening. And the tolls and police stops were tiring.
Somehow, [almost] all of this is overshadowed by the things we learned, the laughs, and the hospitality of the people we encountered. Things didn’t always go smoothly, but the people we traveled with are good people, fun people, smart people. As for the Bolivian hospitality, people gave us directions, offered us samples of foods, gave us recommendations, and even drove us to and from a mechanic. That man walking toward your campsite with machete in hand? He’ll just give you a big smile and say “Buen día. Lindo día en el Chaco, ¿no?”
There are so many more things I want to tell you. Things I probably shouldn’t. I saw things I didn’t know existed. I ate things I never thought I would. I did things I never thought I would. When Skyping with friends and family, I couldn’t believe the stories we were telling were ours.
Am I happy I did it? Yes. Do I recommend travel to the Bolivian Chaco? Certainly. Just do more research than we did. Maybe look for tour guides or take day trips. Will I return to Bolivia? Absolutely. There’s not a doubt in my mind. Our Bolivian Chaco road trip only scratched the surface of what the country offers. We’ve got so much more to see. I’m excited for the days when I can blog about my adventures in the Bolivian salt flats (no actual plans yet, just the dreams).
But for now, I am sorting through, sharing, and storing away the memories of our up-and-down twelve-day road trip through southeastern part of the country. Thanks to the biologists who let us tag along. Thanks to Bolivian people for a warm welcome (yeah, yeah, Abopó aside for the time being). Thanks to my husband, who didn’t give me grief about forgetting his birthday. And thanks to you for reading and listening about my trip.
More details about the Chaco and our trip coming your way soon
*This was not our vehicle. We drove a Kangoo. We just followed the road trip hippies for a while, that’s all.
**I’ll admit that I fall on an extreme end of the spectrum here. I like adventure. I like new places. But I don’t like spending time searching for a place to stay when I could have arranged one. Also, when staying in a place, safety is my number one priority. A shower of any kind is number 2. I know that I need to embrace spontaneity a bit more. I’m working on it.
***We were at least diligent about washing our hands and using sanitizer. Many stores will have a jug on the counter for you to use. We also swallowed a couple drops of Thieves oil each day. Maybe it was just luck. Maybe it was a combination of these things. But generally, no stomach issues for most of the trip, excepting a few spells that didn’t result in anything the least bit serious for our systems.
^I am a horrible wife. I lost track of days and didn’t even realize it was Jordan’s birthday until about 3 PM. We bought a Bolivian wine to share while camping that night, but with the threat of rain and change of plans, he didn’t even get to partake. I made him a birthday meal upon our return to try and make up for my oversight.