Our stay in La Paz, Bolivia was relatively short – one night on either side of our Amazon and Copacabana legs of the journey. As we get into La Paz we feel a little short of breath and dizzy due to its well-publicized altitude at 3660m. It is a quirky sort of place and a little unexpected as you travel through flat sparse plains of the sprawling city of El Alto, and then you approach a massive valley which the city of La Paz sits in. It’s a strange sight with the city’s buildings clinging to the sides of the canyon and almost looks like it spills haphazardly downwards. It is a clear day and we see the imposing Mount Illimani looming in the background.
We check into our hostel which is right in the city centre itself and head out to explore. La Paz is a poor and rather disorganised city compared to the grandeur of Cuzco where we’ve just come from. The Indigenous population here is also one of the largest in South America. We visit the Witches market also known as El Mercado de las Brujas which is a popular tourist attraction located in Cerro Cumbre. The merchandise sold here is run by local witch doctors and includes potions, dried frogs and medicinal plants which are used in Bolivian rituals. Most famous of all the items sold are the dried llama foetuses which we see in various different sizes. These llama foetuses are buried under the foundations of many Bolivian houses as a sacred offering to the goddess Pachamama. We also have our worst meal ever here in La Paz at a Chinese/Thai restaurant. We wait almost one and a half hours for our meal and we notice that the other tables at the restaurant are filled with disgruntled and dissatisfied customers complaining loudly. Two girls come into the restaurant to order dinner and we become complicit with the family sitting next to us when we tell the girls to make a run for it.
The next morning we take a small plane from La Paz to Rurrenabaque. The flight is a stunning journey over the Cordillera Real mountains and down to the Bolivian Amazon. Rurre, as it is commonly known, is a small town and the gateway to the rainforest. It is here that we board our boat for a 6-hour journey up to El Chalalan ecolodge in the heart of the Mandidi National park. I was keen to stay here after reading a feature article in the National Geographic and it has also won awards as one of the best community-owned initiatives. The journey was very pleasant and relaxing up the Beni river as we spot wildlife along the tributary. Docking at the bank of the river, it is a further half hour trek to the ecolodge through the jungle. 15 minutes in we come across a stampeding herd of wild boars 20 – 40 meters ahead of us, which is preceded by an unusual smell of rotting food and the clickety-clack of their tusks. We stop in our tracks as the guide tells us that the wild boars are carnivorous, attack in packs when feeling threatened and have eaten humans alive…we give them a wide berth and press on.
Arriving into a clearing, we find ourselves in the grounds of the Ecolodge and are promptly shown to our chalets. To our delight, they are charming and very rustic. Being right in the middle of a tropical jungle, it is sweltering, the humidity clings to you like wet cotton wool and the lake upon which the lodge sits next to looks so inviting and we long to go in for a dip. But we hear there are alligator caymans in the lake, even though our guide tells us they only eat fish we are not game to wade in!
Over the next couple of days, we take tours into the national park and also to a nearby community which is supported by the Ecolodge. Our guide takes us to the local council hall to meet with some Elders and also around the village, what I like most is the stopover we make to the primary school where we are told that a share of the proceeds goes towards their children’s education. As the children grow up they have opportunities to take up apprenticeships at the Ecolodge in a number of roles which gives them employable skills.
One of the things Peter has noticed is that the jungle isn’t quite what he had imagined it to be, it isn’t the thick lush rainforest but seemingly younger smaller trees which the guide tells us is correct, recent conservation efforts to save the rainforest are working now which was subject to deforestation before it became a national park. Disappointingly we don’t see as much wildlife but when we take a canoe out onto the lake we come across families of monkeys swinging from the trees in search of food. As get up for a closer look they start pelting us with food, branches and little stones as they think we are predators. The guide tells us not to keep our mouths open as we look up as one even starts to pee on us!
On our last night the staff at El Chalalan put on a big dinner and there is a LOT of dancing as we are treated to bottles of ‘chicha’ the local alcohol which is made from fermented maize. It obviously acts as a social lubricant and within a few hours, we are all being towed merrily onto the dance floor to partake in what looks like their version of traditional line dancing! After a couple of hours, we can’t take it anymore and sneak off to bed. Buenos noches mi amiga.