Thursday, August 18, 2011

Canyoning Coroico

For a while now I’ve wanted to try the sport of canyoning. The idea behind it is simple: find a big canyon full of waterfalls and abseil/rappel your way down them to the exit of the canyon. It sounded like the perfect way to combine my fear of heights with a love for waterfalls and nature in general. While in the hostel in Bolivia I noticed the tour agency offered canyoning trips, and decided this would be the perfect interlude between the mountain biking mission and the upcoming mountain we were going to be climbing.


When we got back from riding, Angus and I booked for the next day and headed straight to the spot where the buses leave for Coroico (where the canyoning is). We hopped out of the taxi to a barrage of little old ladies trying to get us into their minivans. It was genius, we didn’t even really have to barter as they kept lowering their prices in front of each other, then it was just up to us to choose one when the price was good.

The minibus ride was pretty unpleasant, but the views tended to make up for it. Coroico is in the Yungas, an area of Jungle to the North-East of La Paz which also contains some epic plus-sized valley networks. The now infamous “World’s Most Dangerous Road” is in this valley network, so for me it removed any desire to ride it, as I had now seen the views. Riding down a gravel road does nothing to tingle my man-bits.

We got into Coroico just after dark and taxied to a hostel I’d seen on Hostelworld, called Esmeralda. Turns out it was actually a flash hotel. Angus and I were both pretty phased about moving again so treated ourselves to a $16NZ hotel room and a $5 NZ all you can eat buffet. Did I mention I love Bolivia?

We got up the next day pretty late and tried to order a taxi. We couldn’t get one for 20 mimutes but we were due at the tour office in 10. Therefore we ran into town to the square and then propositioned a taxi from there. I was starting to panic a bit as I was really keen to canyon and didn’t want to waste the money and trip out here. The taxi started taking us away from town and towards the canyon, which I thought was a bit suspect. After a mangled Spanish conversation and some help from SpanishDict for ipod touch, we turned around and got dropped off at the office – which was on a street just off the square. Turns out the canyon and the tour company shared the same name, who’d have thunk it.
Coca coca coca!
However all was well and we piled into our vehicle for the day, the noble Toyota Noah. This thing was pretty marginal on the narrow gravel roads with sharp switchbacks but we got to the canyon no trouble. There was a good walk down to the first waterfall, during which we got to see some coca plantations. Then we suited up and got into it.

Geared up with the guide.

The guides were incredibly professional, far more so than what you would expect if you have heard the rumours about Bolivian adventure tours (in general I have found this to be the case). The equipment was also clearly up to the task and well maintained. We were quickly taught safe practice for rappelling, but it was mostly pretty basic stuff. Then it was into our first waterfall, which was a simple one only a few metres tall. From the start I loved the experience and I’d love to get into some more technical and bigger waterfalls.

The first fall,

We did about 8 waterfalls over the next couple of hours. The biggest was 12m, so nothing huge. The experience is great though, and for someone who had never even abseiled before this it was a perfect way to taste this sort of thing. It’s pretty hard to describe the feeling of jumping down a rock wall in a gorgeous jungle canyon while a thick sheet of water is cascading next to and sometimes all over you, but it is definitely an experience worth having.

It's hard smiling for the camera with water in your eyes.

Eventually we popped out into the bottom of a sunny gorge and head down river to a likely spot for lunch. Behind us was another waterfall in another canyon, and we were on the bank of the gorgeous main river. Lunch was great, and made better by the scenic surroundings, with large bright blue butterflies floating above us. It was a perfect moment.

I've had worse picnic spots.

After lunch we jumped off a ledge into a pool for a while until that got boring, and then hiked out of the canyon, a climb I would estimate to be a few hundred vertical metres. We climbed back in the Noah, grabbed our gear from the tour office and headed to the bus station.

Disappointingly, there were no buses available to La Paz as they were full. Not getting home was not an option as we were leaving to climb a great dirty mountain the next morning, so we were forced to fork out for a taxi. To be fair, I have taken more expensive taxi’s home from town in NZ, but it was the principle of the thing. The trip was much smoother and quicker this way (it took maybe an hour less than by minibus) and the driver spoke a bit of English too.

Dancing girls, everyone's fave.

We arrived in La Paz to find a festival was on. Apparently it was student day, and our hostel was across the road from the University, making it the main route for the inevitable parade that accompanies every festival in South America. The streets were packed and it was a bastard physically getting into our hostel, but we got in and settled.

Impressive costumes.

We went for a look at the parade but you can only look at costumed dancers for so long so we went to the bar to drink heavily. I was planning to have an early one but between the festival and the good people I met in the bar I somehow ended up going out to some local club. It was a pretty good time during which I bust out my ruthless dance moves and drank far more than I should have. Highlights included watching one of my new buddies spew on the street, classy behaviour from a petite English girl. Those I was with were continuing on with their evening in a fairly big way but I decided to peel off and at least get a couple hours sleep before trying to climb a mountain. I was pretty happy to get back to the hostel and collapse into bed fully clothed, having done the worst thing possible before my next adventure.

More photos here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Riding Sorata

I have been lugging a most expensive and inconvenient toy around South America, namely my bicicleta muy mal, for the last month and a half. Unfortunately the amount of time I have spent riding the damn thing has been minimal. After rave reviews from my friend Shane, a man with an epic side profile, I was extremely geared up to go riding in a little place called Sorata. I knew the company I wanted to go with, called Andean Epics, but I was a bit relaxed about organising a tour. Eventually I pulled finger and teed up three days of riding for Angus and I with Travis, the owner of the company.

Bikes on jeeps, heading to Hauyna-Potosi
Travis is an extremely good sort from Colorado who has been in Bolivia for ten odd years running a touring company. Apart from being a properly nice guy, Trav organises some epic races (think 2 day Super D’s with insane vert metre-age loss) around the region and seems to be the only person in the area really keen to try and develop a proper mountain bike scene in La Paz and Sorata. As well as this he has singlehandedly built an epic downhill track anda bunch of other tasty little sections around the Sorata area. So all in all he is the business when it comes to mtb in Bolivia and if you are ever over these ways you should ride with him (websites here and here, with better photos from Trav here). If not, maybe just build him a small shrine or something. Anyways, advertorial/man-crush moment over.

We had arranged to do three days riding, one around La Paz and then two at Sorata. We set off on a hot Tuesday afternoon to hit three runs in the substantial hillsides scattered around La Paz. The first was a bit of a warm-up and a chance for Angus to get used to his rented bike, a pimp-as Transition Blindside. This run was known as Baranquillas and started off as a gravel road running through an area of brickmakers, before heading into some narrow but not overly challenging singletrack which headed down a distinctly desert-feeling landscape. The grade was good and there wasn’t anything too techy so it was a good chance for Gus to get used to the bike.

After meeting our driver we then moved on to Ayma, or Avel Pueblo. This was probably my favourite trail of the day, a loose, rocky and in places tight run down a pretty severe ridge to the bottom of the valley. There were lots of big random sinkholes to avoid on the way down too. I found it interesting riding in such open terrain as all of my previous riding had been in very different settings. The downhill runs were also a lot longer than what I was used to, with this one taking about 40 minutes.

Gus is psyched.

We decided there was time for one more run, down Nunya Mayami. This run had lots of different sections, fast and flowwy at the top before moving into a rougher rockier section further down that was mighty fun. After that it turned into a steep bit of track with some big drops down the sides and lots of tight (too tight for the Niner) sweeping switchbacks. I found the bottom bit a real challenge but overall it was a good ride which ended just on dark.

Top of Ayma.

The next day we left at about 9 after a pancake breakfast. We spent a couple hours in the jeep heading to the west of Huayna-Potosi, an impressive 6088m mountain. Apart from stunning views of the face of the mountain, we also had some great terrain to play with for some freeride missions. With no tracks up there except for those made by llamas it is quite probable we were the first people to ever ride there which was pretty choice. Basically we were on big dune-like hills ripping down a bunch of ridges heading towards a lake. There were a lot of good steep loose and fast sections were you could really let rip for the good times.

The laandscape isn't half bad.

We moved onwards towards Sorata, stopping for lunch close to lake Titicaca and demolishing some tasty fish treats for lunch. The afternoon ride was called Loma Loma and involved some serious altitude loss, I forget the total but it was well over an hour to ride down. Mostly this run was sort of open farmland type stuff up higher but with some serious altitude and good terrain to play with to give us good fast flowwy downhill. There was potential to fal a properly lomg way in some sections too which kept it exciting. Also the views were truly spectacular; the area around Sorata is the biggest valley network I have ever seen. The scale of the place terrifies me. Anyway, further down it turned into a wide path scattered with loose rock which I managed to bean right through, causing me a pinch flat. Tube replaced, we continued onwards down the road to the bottom of the valley and a beautiful little river.

Travis thought we had time for one more run so we went to his personal playground, Iminapi. Travis built this track himself and it really rips. The track takes a pretty ruthless line down a hillside in a series of extremely steep and tight switchbacks. This isn’t really my preferred style of track and certainly not something my bike, with its longer than normal wheelbase, is ideally set up for and I have to admit I struggled hard with the trail. I was impressed by the line Travis had chosen though, and huge props to anyone who can go out and build a trail by themselves.

Gus drops in. Trooper.

We finished up at our hostel, called Altai Oasis. This place is possibly the most relaxed place in the world, run by a good sort hippy guy whose name I have forgotten. Every piece of wood used to build the place has gone through his hands. There were lots of animals kicking around too. It is the place to relax and they also do a fine burger in their restaurant.

The next day we got into the jeep and drove for over an hour to get up properly high, above 5000m. We started in a rocky section of trail which included a road gap that Trav (“I’m not that good in the air”) hit but Angus and I went around because we value or precious fragile bones. Then we hit the scree slopes, something I was initially terrified of because of the steepness of it and the fact that it’s a hill of razor sharp gravel. The big wheels pick up speed pretty quick and can be hard to stop. In the end we got amongst and all was well, it was a very different type of mountain biking. After that we hit a section of single track that I particularly enjoyed winding my way down as it had some great swooping uphill turns in it.

Trav and I admire the view.

We hit road for a bit and then, after a brief but steep hike-a-bike, we were onto a trail called Ch’u ch’u. It was more of a hill really as big sections had no trail, it was some more freeriding good times. The terrain is really what makes the place. I was riding well and having a mighty fine time as we hit a section of track which headed through some trees. It was great to be back in the bush and I felt like I was flying. We came out into some more open terrain and then hit a nice techy rocky section before slogging up the road for a while. Next we hit Trav’s DH track again and I did no better the second time. A lowlight was debeading my tire from the front wheel while cornering like a muppet.

Lunch was at Altai Oasis and then we were back up to the hike a bike section of Ch’u ch’u to repeat the run, but with an alternate ending which I preferred. There were some good tree roots, nice rocky sections and some bush around in places.

Big valleys.

It had been an epic few days of riding but we had to get back to La Paz to go canyoning. We said our goodbyes to Trav and hopped in the jeep with our driver, Carlos. This guy was pretty amazing, he’d been in the peace core for a few years and he was also a qualified lawyer but he preferred to drive and guide tours. All in all, he was a proper good sort. The drive back was pretty smooth and we were pretty pleased to get back to the hostel and knock back a couple of beers before hitting the hack.

 I’d thoroughly recommend a trip to Sorata with Trav to any of my mountain biking friends, the terrain is epic, the trails great and the guide top-notch. Get into it.

More photos here.

Friday, August 5, 2011

An Amazonian experience

So after wasting a week getting intoxicated in La Paz the boys finally pulled finger and teed up some sort of touristy activity type thing. Our chosen expedition was to Rurrenbaque, Bolivia’s gateway to the Amazon. Sadly we were shedding Jack, who was moving on to warmer pastures in Santa Cruz. It was sad to see him go but it was onwards to the airport, where we waited around for the plane to arrive and then boarded the tiny twenty-seat deathtrap. The actual flight was awesome, a bit of turbulence to keep it interesting and some stunning views of the Andes and the jungle were on offer.

Arriving was pretty impressive; we circled over a huge river and then landed on a small runway in the middle of the jungle. The heat and humidity was instantly blanketing us. It was clear very quickly that I wasn’t exactly going to thrive in these conditions as a plump hairy white-boy. My blood is too thick for the jungle (thanks HST). My glorious barba rojo, so good at protecting my soft precious face from the terrible attacks of the elements in Patagonia, was now a hot and itchy burden for me to bear over the next week.

The bus ride into town gave us the vibe of Rurrenbaque, it was a pretty rough bumpy trip on red clay roads which weren’t in the best nick. On the bus we started talking to a couple of chicas. One was a New Zealander who had lived in Wellington, we even shared a few mutual friends – a pretty ridiculous example of how small the world really is. Anyway, we found a good cheap hostel with a rooftop balcony and got on with the serious business of getting drunk. There isn’t exactly heaps going on in Rurrenbaque but we found a good Hookah bar and had a feed over mas cerveza. Things got really out of hand back at the hostel though when Gus bought a bottle of Johnny Walkers which we hoed into straight. This decision wasn’t the one. We also learnt a new game called Dutch Asshole (a variant on normal Asshole) which became a favourite because of its quirky rules. Later Gus got punished by his own drink and passed out. I happened to have a vivid and he was suitably decorated. Later I ended up sleeping out on the balcony, which was very nice.

The next day, however, had nothing nice about it. I was in the thralls of what I thought was the worst hangover of my time in South America. I was straight to the bathroom for a stupidly harsh vomit, and then battled to get ready and make it to the tour guide office (called Fluvial tours) in time. Just before I jumped into the 4x4 I was sure I sharted myself, and had to go and check. Fortunately I hadn’t touched cloth. Then the 4x4 ride started and I was in hell for the next three hours. The highlight included vomiting out of the window of the moving Landcruiser while it rocked and bumped its way down one of the most atrocious roads I’ve ever been on. We also got to see sloths and cobras on the way but I was in no state to really enjoy the wildlife.

A giant bastard mouse.

The horrors continued after lunch (which I passed on) when we hopped onto the canoe and headed up river for three hours. I alternated between overheating badly while trying not to explode out of both ends and snoozing gently. The wildlife was incredible, but I was in no state to properly enjoy it. Needless to say I was pretty pleased to get to the lodge, but more disappointment was coming my way. I had left my shoes on the river shore and was now stuck in the bush for three days with only my all-terrain jandals for footwear.

Hello Mr. Gator.

That night there was the chance to enjoy the sunset at a bar and then look for aligators and caiman in the dark. However my chosen option was to enjoy some sleep in an attempt to feel like a real person again. It failed, and I struggled to eat and food when I woke up. Bed was calling and I answered, ending the most miserable day of my trip to date.

A blurry bird of paradise.

The next day I woke up still feeling awful and had my first inkling that it might be something worse than a simple hangover. I managed to get some breakfast inside me semi-permanently though, a vast improvement on the day before, and then we were off looking for anacondas. This involved baking in the hot sun as we trudged around swamplands wearing gumboots with holes in them nominally looking for snakes. I was more looking for places to die quietly, preferably in the shade. Still, we managed to find an anaconda which was pretty cool to see, turns out they’re pretty placid things. Some people were trying to get photos holding it etc but I thought it was a bit off and we should have just left the poor thing alone.


As an interesting aside, some people were a bit nervous about looking for anacondas due to a story (which I cannot verify as true or not) which was floating around Rurrenbaque at the time. Basically, what happened is that a group were looking for anacondas and had split into two smaller groups. One group found one and called to the others. The guide of this second group was inexperienced and started running to those who had found the big snake, running straight through a small area of muddy water and stirring up a caiman. The caiman, now angry, then took a good bite out of some poor tourists kneecap. Whether true or not, it’s a bit of a worrying story.

A white stork or something, pretty.

The afternoon consisted of fishing for piranha out of the side of the canoe. Our guide, who had been guiding for 20 years, was the absolute mantis at it and hauled in about 10. I managed to get three or so myself, establishing myself as the alpha male piranha fisherman out of the tourists. An added bonus was getting to eat them later, although there wasn’t heaps of meat on their bones and they didn’t taste like much.

Nom nom nom.

That night we went to a soccer field and watched the sunset which was beautiful. Then it was back to enjoy the surprisingly good meals before playing some cards. We were to bed early because we were up early to look at the sunrise. It wasn’t bad but I was still feeling very awful so I didn’t enjoy it like I could have. We went back for breakfast and then we were out looking for white dolphins so we could swim with them. This was probably the highlight of the pampas tour for me, swimming in the same water as piranha and alligators. The dolphins definitely weren’t friendly but they keep the piranha away. We got good and close to an alligator too, and one of our crazy guides was trying to catch one. Suddenly we weren’t so comfortable when the gator went under and we realised that he could have popped up anywhere. Still, it ended well so no worries.

Sunrise in the Pampas.

Our time in the Pampas had ended and we were back down the river and into the 4x4 again. We had a bit of excitement when one of the tourists found a baby tarantula in his bag, it was really chilled out though and fine with people holding it. We went back to the same hostel and spent the night hanging out with the same girls, who had been on a tour with a different company. We went out a bit but I wasn’t up too much still because of illness.

Our next tour was into the jungle and I was fairly excited about it. Armed with new shoes (the classicos, costing whopping 16 NZD and this time carbineer-ed onto my bag) and some medicinal back-up against my illness I was ready to go. We went up the main river next to Rurrenbaque this time and were soon at our camp. The scenery was stunning and although I wasn’t back to normal I was starting to feel like life was tolerable. We spent the first afternoon walking through the Amazonian jungle. The scene was completely different to the Pamapas, which was swampland-ish, and I personally found it much more pleasant. We learnt about a whole lot of trees and their medicinal properties, but it was all in Spanish so I only sort of got the gist of some of it. Childish highlights included the ‘viagra tree’ and the tree which had appendages growing around it that were distinctly phallic in nature. Hilarious.


We chilled back at camp and had a feed and then after dark it was out into the night looking for poisonous spiders. I was the only muppet sin headlamp which made things a bit more difficult for me. We found a tarantula and several other ‘toxico’ spiders which were out and about. The size of the tarantula was astonishing but they are surprisingly beautiful spiders. It was a bit gnarly to know that basically all of the insects out there were poisonous bad-asses just waiting for the chance to try it on.
The next morning we went for another bush walk, this time stopping at a tarzan swing which was good for a laugh. We also found a herd of wild pigs and got pretty close to them before they scarpered. They are amazing creatures and as well as grunting they were making a lot of interesting clicking noises.

Monkey skull

Our jungle tour was fairly brief as we were back on the boat that afternoon, but I enjoyed it more than the pampas. I had been missing the bush a bit. When we got back to Rurrenbaque we went to book our flights only to be met with drama. The next flight out with our company was not until Tuesday. So we went to get a dirty, dangerous 20 hour bus. On the way we went past another flight agency, TAM, and dropped in just in case. They had flights going in two days, and this would beat the bus back. We were lucky to get three of the last seats.

The flight date meant we had a day to just chill in Rurrenbaque, which was surprisingly pleasant. We just kicked back, played cards and talked shit. After arriving back in La Paz we went to Cholitas wrestling, which is basically South American WWF but with girls ‘fighting’ guys sometimes. It was pretty intense in places, with fighters being thrown into the audience on occasion. All in all it was good for a laugh.

It was a bit sad that night though because Townie was going his own ways the next day. Gus and I had teed up some riding in Sorata and around La Paz though which I was super psyched for, meaning it wasn’t all bad. Gus and I had an epic week of adventure sport planned and I was champing at the bit for it.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

La Paz and the Bolivian vibe

Although this post is nominally about La Paz, in the week I have spent here I haven’t really done much that is noteworthy, unless eating delicious street food, battling to organise activities and doing the Gringo tourist shopping thing counts as noteworthy. Oh yeah, and all while atrociously hung-over because La Paz is a bit like that. So instead of boring/disgusting you with repetitive tales of drunken debauchery (I’m sure that’s something Mum doesn’t need to hear about, hi Mum!), I’m going to talk a bit about the city and Bolivia in general and why this place is so fuckin’ sweet.

First up though, here’s La Paz:

 And one at night:


Now that’s out of the way, Bolivia. The place is awesome. I would recommend it to all of my friends and even some people who I don’t really like very much, as long as they were going to splash around some cash these ways. But not a lot of cash because this place is cheap. Like, too cheap to describe or even really comprehend. I know people go on about it a bit but it’s one of the most obvious and relevant factors to the average Gringo traveller. This is great for the traveller but has the associated problems you would expect when considering the country as a whole. Anyway, a room costs six to ten NZ dollars a night. Activities which would cost hundreds at home can be done for a fraction of the price. A meal can be as little as $2.50.

Speaking of food, the street vendors are great. There are many delicious treats available at every corner. Readily available are hanberguesas, salchipapas (fries with slices of sausage and mayo and ketchup on top), choripan (delicious sausage in a bun), empanadas, tucamanas (big empanadas) and pancho (hot dogs). For around 10 Bolivianos you can get a sit down lunch with a hearty soup, a main of carne or pollo con arroz (beef or chicken with rice), and some fruit for dessert. The food is a bit hit and miss though, with most Gringo’s generally getting a trippy tummy at some stage while living the Bolivian dream.

But that’s okay, because there are pharmacies absolutely everywhere. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that there is likely to be a pharmacy within 100m of you at all times. Like everything else, pharmaceuticals are ridiculously cheap. The restrictions for over the counter medicines are relaxed to say the least. Travellers commonly buy valium over the counter to take before long cold overnight bus rides. As long as you know the chemical name and have the fortitude to persist with your request you can normally get the pharmacist to understand what you are after.

As a Gringo you can expect to get the jerk around a fair bit though. A lot of the time I think I am being "Gringo taxed". It wouldn't be so bad if my Espanol was up to par but I am sure that all Gringos over here get the shaft sometimes. Also, when you arrange a tour, expect to be fed some Bolivian lies. Often advertised parts of the tour just won't happen, and they often won't give you the full picture. It's best to just assume you will get 'mas o menos' what is advertised. And this isn't something unique to tours - Gringos get told Bolivian lies in a huge range of interesting situations. 


 The other annoyance for the average traveller is Bolivians relaxed approach to timekeeping and punctuality. Buses often leave more than an hour after schedule and always arrive at least two hours later than expected. Also, a 20 hour bus here will not have a toilet, it will not have heating, and you will not be fed. All you can guarantee is that it will be overcrowded and a bit miserable.

Stolen from the internet because I'm too
 scared to point my camera at locals
when I can't explain why.
At least it will be interesting when you arrive at your destination. Bolivian cities are a frenzy of rule-less mayhem on all sides. The driving is truly manic (and the roads often dirt or badly paved with whatever stones can be found, even mid-city), there are people everywhere walking at an idle, and the sidewalks are crammed with street stalls selling just about anything. It’s worth people watching as well just to look at what the locals are wearing: the women in particular often dress in a specific local style which includes a colourful blanket slung over their back and a little bowler-style hat up top.

Just make sure you don’t go for your walk on a Sunday, because everything will be closed. Best to try and avoid shopping between 1 and 3pm too or you’re likely to get stung by siesta (although this is not so bad in the bigger cities).

While you’re looking around, keep an ear out for the local music, and tell me if you can differentiate any of the songs because I sure as hell can’t. I guess it’s a bit like when you start listening to drum and bass – it all sounds pretty similar until you get the ear. Fortunately, there is a lot less reggaeton up these ways when compared to Chile or Argentina.

Probably the best part about Bolivia is the huge range of outdoor activities or adventure activities easily and cheaply available. Mountaineering, mountain biking, canyoning, trekking, ziplines, rafting, jungle adventures, 4x4 tours, and many more are all easily available within a few hours of La Paz. The guides have also all been really good in my experience, and the equipment up to the job. If you head these ways, get amongst.

My last observation about Bolivia is that it is generally inhabited by very happy people, despite the problems the country has. Almost everyone I have met has been very helpful towards this most Gringo if Gringos, with a willingness to go out of their way to sort me out. They also love to share a joke as long as it can be translated across languages. Most seem happy in their job, especially the guides I have met. The children are always smiling. I haven’t been exposed to any crime yet (touch wood) but have been treated with more honesty than I would expect in some situations (like when I don’t understand how much things cost and hand over too much, they make sure I pay the right amount).

So that’s Bolivia. You have to take it as it comes, but as long as you have an open mind and a fairly high tolerance for getting out of your comfort zone you can have the time of your life here.