Oriental Bolivia

Santa Cruz

The bus approaches the city of Santa Cruz and to me it smells like Florida. When we arrive at the hostel we are greeted by Toucans.

It’s hard to believe they’re real. Am I holding a cartoon? Why do I suddenly have this strong desire to eat cereal in my pajamas? Can we keep it?

Most of the tourism in Bolivia is concentrated in the western part of the country. Now we’re in the east. Low altitude. Flat, hot jungle. We can practically spit on Brazil from here – but we won’t. There is no reason to spit on Brazil. We notice a change in the ethnicity of the people around us, and a new accent that is hard to understand.

“Léa, what flavor ice cream is this? I can’t understand a word this woman is saying.”

Surprisingly, Santa Cruz is the most populated city in Bolivia, but with a small town feel, as few buildings are more than one story. As we walk around the beautiful central plaza we feel for the first time in a while that we’re actually visiting a place where people live, instead of being on a tourist track. It’s almost like being invisible. It’s great.

And they’ve got a talent for celebration. On a thursday evening everyone is out on the town. After dinner we stop to watch an elaborate song and dance performance on a public stage. The singer at center stage thanks about a hundred people individually by name, giving shout outs to the local community for their lively spirit.

The following day we discover a street with shop after shop of amazing traditional costumes that the youth were renting for local festivities. We were very close to buying a head-to-toe China Morena costume, but couldn’t quite justify the price. They’re very complex, with many pieces covered in details and sparkly things, all hand-sewn. Will not purchasing this be the biggest regret of our entire trip?

China Morena

China Morena

Probably.

Ginger’s Paradise

From Santa Cruz it’s a two hour drive westbound in a microbus to a small organic farm called Ginger’s Paradise. You step out of the microbus at a curve in the road, then immediately cross a river on a rickety suspension walking bridge.

The boards bend under the weight of each step.

After the bridge, it’s ten minutes of hiking down to their farm, where we find the whole family plus two visitors having lunch together.

We spend two days here, learning bits and bobs about what it’s like to live and work on a farm that produces almost everything they need to live as a self-sufficient family of six: an american “ex-rockstar” husband, a bolivian wife, and four children from one to fifteen years old.

Building an adobe house

Harvesting clay

They’ve learned to do everything at this farm. They harvest bees for their honey – even let us help separate the honey from the comb using a hand-powered centrifuge. They make wine, liquor, peanut butter. Everything they eat is from the farm. They press sugar cane. They make bricks out of adobe. They make coffee, chocolate. It’s really impressive.

Lea’s little helper

The kids are great fun, and really intelligent for their age. For example, I was walking down the path with nine-year-old Ginger to help retrieve a giant mechanical sugar-cane press from the road, when she asks if I know any jokes. Struggling to find a joke fit for someone her age, I tell her my memory is not so good and I can’t remember any.

She pauses for a minute, then asks me, “Did you have any girlfriends before Léa?” I am surprised by the question, and respond, “Well, yes. I have.” She quickly retorts, “Well if you can remember that, then you don’t have such a bad memory, do you.”

I am speechless.

The mother gave us a humble and eloquent overview of what it was like to launch their farm, and then stick with it to make it what is is today. A great conversation and something Léa and I will take with us as inspiration.

The father has a gregarious personality. This was welcoming at first, but it soon revealed a strong ego that was often hard to take, and at times downright ignorant or racist. Some things were said that had Léa and I exchanging glances at the dinner table, wondering whether we should leave in the night.

I suppose this is an understandable side-effect for a rockstar-become-hermit.

Also, how can you name your entire home after just one of your many children? Just imagine growing up in your sibling’s paradise!

We depart with a bit of a mental struggle to take with us all the good things we learned and experienced (especially with the children), and leave the rest behind.

Samaipata

From Ginger’s Paradise we catch another microbus to the popular town of Samaipata. It’s a regular vacation spot for people from Santa Cruz, and offers lots of day trips while also serving as a starting point to venture north into protected jungle wilderness.

We spend the first day hiking in the hills around the small town to get a feel for the area.

The second day we go to some nearby waterfalls, called Las Cuevas. It’s a gentle series of three waterfalls, each with a great swimming hole at its base. Amazingly, we have all three to ourselves!

After the waterfalls we head to the biggest nearby attraction: El Fuerte. On top of a mountain just outside of Samaipata lies a huge (100m) rock that was carved into a temple and served as a religious and administrative site for both Incan and pre-Incan peoples.

Having enjoyed the local attractions and without time for another full-on jungle expedition, we plan to take a twelve-hour night bus southwest to the town of Sucre.

However, it’s not so simple.

First, we’re told the bus might not come due to one of Bolivia’s famous road block protests. This happens frequently in Bolivia, and the government has a bit of trouble intervening…turns out the current president used to employ this method of protest quite a bit, so it’s quite tough for him to tell others not to.

We wait.

After the locals determine that it’s unlikely for the nicer bus to come through, we are given the option to wait at a creepy local toll booth in case other transport passes by.

Doesn’t look fun. Let’s get a hotel and try again tomorrow.

The next day we wake up, determined to get to Sucre by any means possible. Our first thought is to travel hundreds of kilometers north to Cochabamba, which is a main transport hub for the country. It will be twelve hours northwest, then another ten or so south. We’re desperate.

However, just before we commit 100% to this crazy plan we ask ourselves, “Even if it’s in the opposite direction from Sucre, why not try our luck at the much-closer bus terminal back in Santa Cruz, a measly three hours away?”

So we head east again to Santa Cruz.

Bad news: a rainstorm washes giant boulders onto the road. Everyone gets out of their cars and starts talking about how someone needs to come with The Machine. Several hours later a small bulldozer starts to clear them away. It’s smaller than some of the boulders…so it takes a while. The Machine.

Good news: this is still, somehow, a better plan than going to Cochabamba.

We arrive in the main bus terminal of Santa Cruz and find a night bus taking a “slightly” longer route to Sucre to avoid the road block. We hop on the bus. It’s not a very nice bus, but we understand they don’t want to risk their normal fleet on the unmaintained roads of this alternate route. It’s going to be a long trip, in uncomfortable seats. The bus is squeaking and rattling over bumps and around tight curves. The girl behind us is chewing gum like it’s a performance art. But still, we’re on our way.

Bad news: fifteen hours into the bus ride we hit another road block. There is a giant truck blocking the road on a muddy uphill section of the highway. Hard to say if it’s a small protest or if the thing just stopped working. Either way, the problem is solved in about an hour by a group of men who decide to just push the thing to the side of the road.

Definitely something I’ve never seen before. #teamwork

By the time we get to Sucre we’ve spent nineteen hours on this bus. A new record!

Good news: the girl behind us ran out of gum, and finally stopped smacking.

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Categories: Posts in English

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