Those of you that have been following our 11North55South exhibition would probably remember that we had left La Paz, the capital of Bolivia as well as the north part of the country out of our itinerary in our last visit about a year ago. Well, now was the time we had planned to do it.
Lake Titicaca is shared between both Peru & Bolivia and criss-crossing the border is really easy and without any hassle. So after completing the Peruvian part of the lake, we were off to another border crossing and on to Bolivia. Our first overnight stop was the village of Copacabana that is nestled between two hills on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca. Copacabana is a small, bright town and a Gringo Trail crossroad. Wandering around the touristic streets makes you feel like there are more Argentineans and Europeans working in town than locals. Copacabana’s altitude at 3600m also makes it up for the perfect acclimatizing spot before the highest capital of the world, La Paz, at 4200m. We set up our camp in the far left corner of the lake, a bit off the tourist trail, where we came face to face with Bolivia’s littering problem. The upcoming days we managed to put together a small scale beach cleaning, as the garbage and the plastic along the lake has slowly transformed the shore to a garbage dump. Most of the people that make it out here come for a visit to the nearby islands of Isla de la Luna and Isla del Sol (both hosting minor Inka ruins) something that we picked to leave out of our itinerary. Besides this and the stunning church of the Nuestra Señora de Copacabana, we didn’t really find any other reason to extend our stay here. So after a couple of nights we moved on.
At this point we had completed more than three weeks above the 3000m range so we needed to unwind a bit from the altitude. We had heard about the department of Yungas, an area caught between the Andes and the Amazon, a rugged transition zone that has just about every activity that an overlander could ask for. Hike to nearby waterfalls, start a river trip into the Amazon or simply enjoy the breeze of this mountain hideaway. The first out of two bases in this region was Sorata, a bit of a hidden gem in Los Yungas. This place, while it doesn’t have any star attractions, it is a semi-tropical village that sits high above a verdant agricultural valley. Its great weather year round, as well as the access to some of Bolivia’s best treks and kick-ass downhill mountain biking puts it in the map as a top choice for some intoxication from the country’s high altitude. Lonely Planet reads:”In colonial days Sorata provided a link to the Alto Beni’s goldfields and rubber plantations, and a gateway to the Amazon Basin. In 1791 it was the site of a distinctly unorthodox siege by indigenous leader Andrés Tupac Amaru and his 16,000 soldiers. They constructed dykes above the town, and when these had filled with runoff from the slopes of Illampu, they opened the floodgates and the town was washed away.” These days, mining and coca production (and its industries) seem to be the main sources of employment in and around Sorata. No matter what you read about the area though (being unsafe) if you happen to pass by, exploring this under-appreciated treasure is more than worthwhile. Finally on our way out of the village, we had our first negative experience, as a local lady demanded from us to pay for her umbrella that got caught and partly damaged in Voukefalas roof. No, we were not about to give in to her demand so after almost two hours of negotiations with police presence (yes, I am stubborn) we got out by paying just six euro’s worth.
Then it was La Paz, the mad capital of honking, diesel-spewing minivans, street marches and persisting street vendors. La Paz is a kind of place that you either love or hate it. One thing is sure, you cannot ignore it. The city nowadays seems to reinvent itself with the addition of a jaw-dropping skytrain that can bring you from the heights of El Alto to the depths of Zona Sur in the blink of an eye. If you happen to come from the Bolivian countryside like us, you’ll be struck by the city’s reality. It’s a real urban jungle where diesel fumes and dust from the blinding altiplano sun during the day fades out to freezing cold nights after the sun sets. Sharp-suited businessmen walk side by side with machine-gun-holding bank guards and shoeshine boys. One thing is a given. La Paz amazes and appalls all who enter and dare to stay for a while. Overlanddiaries though were not meant to be written in the cities. So after a quick necessary maintenance of Voukefalas we took the road for Coroico, our second base in the department of Yungas. Spectacular views, good resort-style hotels for all budgets and a laid-back air were some of the things that made as come this way. ‘Welcome to Paradise’ says a sign at the entrance of the town that is perched on the side of Cerro Uchumachi. The village views across forested canyons, cloud mountain peaks, agricultural lands and coffee plantations gave us a positive feeling about the place. Unfortunately though, our only option of accommodation didn’t justify our feeling. Overlanders heading this way would probably find it extremely difficult to find a leveled place to camp. In a rashly made decision, we stayed only one night here and the next day we took the road that led us back into Peru and the route east towards the Amazon. Unfortunately on our way there, we received a phone call from Greece that changed the whole trip for good. My father was seriously sick and we had to drop everything and immediately fly back to Greece. We drove literally 1700km in 24 hours and got back to Lima in order to fly home. A month and a half later and after everything worked out fine, we left my father in a recovering mode and boarded the plane back to Peru in order to finish what we started. Going through the same route in a slightly slower pace, we reached Puerto Maldonado, our final destination in Peru.
Overlanders must always find something good in any unpleasant situation. In our case, although we had to temporary delay our Amazon crossing, this time we had planned to meet up with Niko and Georgia, our Greek friends from “the pin project” and do the crossing together. So somewhere after our final decent from the Andes, we joined up and reached Puerto Maldonado, a place that is now blossoming from its recent road connection to the outside world. Puerto Maldonado is the capital of the southern jungle and while the city’s proximity to the most easily visited animal-rich jungle in the entire Amazon Basin is its blessing, most overlanders arrive here and too quickly leave again en route to the lodges and wildlife on the nearby rivers. Following the trend above, we also based ourselves in a jungle lodge and set up camp. However, although most people use the city as the jumping-off point for a voyage on Ríos Tambopata and Madre de Dios which criss-cross here, we picked to chill and enjoy the small scale wildlife that called home our own lodge. A friendly monkey and a dancing parrot were our entertainment. Somewhere here it was time to wave Peru goodbye for the last time and cross into Brazil.
Entering Brazil now we got mixed feelings. Upon our arrival we came across long stretches of deforestation but also the great infrastructure that we had missed in the previous countries. After a quick overnight stop in a beautiful natural pool, outside the border town of Brasiléia, that has nothing else to offer, unless you’re after a computer or DVD player from the duty-free border, we stocked up in supplies and hit the road for Porto Velho, the city that is considered to be the vital link of Brazil’s agricultural economy. Soybeans and other products are shipped on huge barges from here up the Río Madeira and transferred directly to ocean liners headed abroad. In that same ride – but partly on boats and not barges and mostly on the long dusty roads that stretch deep in the Amazon rainforest – our plan was to take up the river on the slow Trans-Amazonian highway on route to Santarem and the Amazon Jungle. But all that will be on our next post, so stay tuned for an adventure of a lifetime.