Up the river without a clue
Constantly Bolivia manages to surprise: cars fly at breakneck speed around blind corners, schizophrenic weather patterns make choosing clothes an exercise in faith, and deciding places to visit is often based on informed guesses rather than glossy tour brochures.
One such enigma is the journey on the Rio Mamoré from Trinidad to Guayaramerín. ‘The Rough Guide to Bolivia’ rates this “lazy” trip at number four on its “Thirty things not to miss in Bolivia”, while the ‘Footprint Guide to Bolivia’ is at pains to point out that this trip is “only for the hardy traveller”.
Being a cross between the ‘adventure’ and the ‘tour bus’ tourist I decided to try it for myself; with a lack of Spanish ability, an oversupply of water purification tablets, and a generally vague idea that I would be on some sort of boat for a while I headed to the river - completely without a clue.
Day 1: Trinidad
I have just landed in Trinidad after being delayed for eight hours at Cochabamba. The tropical rains of summer have caused flooding around Trinidad (I thought this wouldn’t be a problem as the plane would fly over the water until it was pointed out that the runway was under two feet of water).
In Trinidad everything is done with motorcycles, including taxi journeys. Like Kelly McGillis clinging seductively to Tom Cruise’s back in ‘Top Gun’ I am whisked towards the port as the plane takes off on its return journey into the sunset.
The romance of the moment is spoiled when the driver stops to check if the combined weight of me and my pack is making the bike press down on the back tyre. It’s true: all men are bastards!!
Arrive at Puerto Almacen, where thirty barges are lined up receiving cargo. Using my broken Spanish I am able to establish that I should have paid more attention in Spanish classes.
But I think there might be a boat tomorrow.
Ominously, the conversation is concluded with “maybe…” It’s a phrase I have a feeling I will need to get used to over the next few days.
Day 2: Trinidad
Feeling incredibly confident (and having chosen a bigger bike for the journey to the port) I stride up to the first person I see and practice my new Spanish phrase for trying to organise a boat.
“I want to travel to Guayaramerín today please.”
“So do I,” says Eric, a hairdresser from Santa Cruz.
After an incredibly detailed discussion with Eric about the advantages and pitfalls of letting him handle the entire conversation to organise a boat, we reach a mutually beneficial arrangement where he will do all the talking in Spanish and I will listen and try to nod where I think it might be appropriate.
This plan works to perfection, and Eric organises a boat for six o’clock this evening. I have a sneaking suspicion he might have even got a spot for me. I follow him for the next hour to confirm this, but he manages to shake me by going to the toilet.
I am certain Eric and Eric’s entire family are quite happy for me to come with them up the river. I’d like to say it was my personality (given the taxi driver has already proven it is not my looks), but given they have consumed six litres of my bottled drinking water between them I think they might have other plans.
I start to feel a little nervous as I draw looks whenever I apply insect repellent as well.
We are waiting under a thatched roof while a monsoon downpour adds to the floods. Milling around us are countless pigs, chickens and dogs.
In an area 2m2 are me, Eric and his wife and three boys, and Tito. Tito was stuck on a bus by the floods for two days and is now trying the boat. As skilled communicators, we talk with thumbs up or down for the remainder of the trip.
Wake up from a brief snooze to find a pig attempting to fornicate with my backpack. Everyone else finds this hysterical.
Quite frankly, I am not amused.
I am also unamused by the fact I am still at the port, despite Eric’s brilliant negotiations. It seems there is some problem with the fuel - the boat has been moored up next to the petrol station for the past nine hours.
We set up camp for the night in a barge moored near our spacious waiting lounge and I discover a small problem with my hammock: it is half a metre too short for me. I thought the hammock with the built-in mosquito net was too good to be true, unfortunately I was right.
Fall asleep on the floor. My last vision is of a patch on my bag that glints strangely in the moonlight. Sincerely hope the pig didn’t manage to fully consummate its relationship with my bag.
Day 3: Trinidad
Up at first light for our boat: having used six fingers followed by a thumbs-up the previous night I am assuming Tito wanted a wake up call. Fortunately I had Pablo, one of Eric’s sons, wake me by glaring in at me through my mosquito netting.
He wants my mosquito repellent. I knew it!
I have bought more water and used my incredibly clever robbery prevention skills to prevent Eric’s mob getting at it. The knot on the plastic bag is doubled - they will never get through that (actually, surprisingly they don’t for the remainder of the trip).
I have tried asking someone other than Eric whether there actually is a boat planning on leaving anytime soon, to be told there will be no boats leaving for another two days.
Trudging dejectedly back to the privileged passengers lounge (oops, I mean the thatched hut with the bag-rooting pig) I notice a flurry of activity. Everyone has put their bags on one of the long log canoes. Seems we are going somewhere.
Clearly Tito meant the ‘other’ six o’clock for our departure, because we now have a boat! What’s more than that, we are actually on it.
I’m not making any claims to knowledge of naval matters, but I would have thought it would be easy to get everyone on board while the boat is moored. We could even have had a dramatic teary farewell as we walked up the gangplank (I had considered bringing streamers for this very purpose).
Rather than that, the boat takes off up the river and we row out in our canoe to board it while it gathers speed. We are not alone, competing with about four other boats to actually attach ourselves and climb on board.
When I am finally on, Tito and I give each other the thumbs up and I set about exploring my home for the next few days.
Not much to explore. There is a toilet and kitchen at the rear, then the engine, a dining room, some cabins and the front of the barge. The problems were not with the ship having enough fuel- what I had thought was the petrol station is now tied floating on the front of the barge.
A tarpaulin is stretched up on the deck, I get a sneaking suspicion this is where we will sleep.
‘The Rough Guide to Bolivia’ has it right, this is a lazy existence. Have spent the entire afternoon stretched out on the deck watching nature’s finest roll-call perform. Monkeys, a big snake, countless brightly coloured birds and plants all pass by within twenty metres. Incredibly beautiful butterflies land on my feet as the river slips by. We are even treated to a display by two ‘bufeos’: pink dolphins that inhabit the Amazon river and tributaries.
The excitement level picks up when we experience the naval equivalent of a head on car crash: three barges tied together reach a corner at the same moment we do. With our petrol tanker bumper bar we are a forty person BBQ waiting to happen. All the men rush to the front to literally push at the other boat and prevent a crash. As an impartial observer I place myself well back from the action and close to the edge just in case there is an explosion and I can dive under the water while it rushes over head.
Crisis averted, we sit down to dinner (soup with rice) and then make our beds. For a day of doing nothing I am completely exhausted, so retire into my mosquito net confinement chamber to be lulled to sleep by the river lapping two feet away from my head. The combination of a spotlight scanning overhead and vivid dreams (a side effect of the malaria tablets) fill my head with a story much like Star Wars. Unfortunately when Darth removes his helmet to say he is my father it turns out to be the pig who has had sex with my bag.
Day 4: Montevideo
Woken by Pablo’s smiling face and miming of mosquitoes attacking his body. I’m not entirely convinced, but give him some repellent anyway, only to have a line of people waiting to be covered in spray.
Once that is exhausted Eric’s wife approaches me looking for more drinking water. On this I can not be convinced, so we reach a compromise (well, I reach a compromise, I don’t think she was too happy) and fill an empty bottle from the river and add some water purification tablets.
She does have a point, the water in the bottle is completely brown. When she points this out to me I try to explain that the colour of the water is the exact reason I am not giving her any of mine. Once again, don’t think she is too happy.
After a breakfast of ‘masoca’ (a dry, yellow mixture similar to coagulated rice) I take a quick look outside, it’s overcast but doesn’t look like rain, and I think another day of lounging on the deck might be in order.
Great lies of the Twenty First Century: Nixon’s “I am not a crook”, Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”, Chris Jackson’s “it’s overcast but doesn’t look like rain.”
It has poured today, pretty much from 11:01 if I am honest about it. Eric and his family have exacted revenge by moving my bag under a hole in the tarpaulin. Thanks to their generosity everything I own is now wet and stinks.
By five it clears up and is beautiful again. The deck dries in no time and we are all soon lounging around again. Find myself incredibly engrossed in working out which logs we will hit (there are entire trees floating down the river), each makes a satisfying grinding noise as it rolls under the hull of the boat.
Over dinner we pass the entrance to the Río Maniqui, where if we took a small detour we could visit the town of Santa Ana de Yacuma. But we float right by, and soon everyone is setting up their beds for the night.
Day 5: Six hours past Santa Ana de Yacuma
The unthinkable happens: I am woken up by a wave crashing into the side of my face. It soaks everything, and given the darkness I nearly strangle myself trying to extract my body from the bed contraption I have rigged up.
Gather all my belongings and place them on higher ground. Completely soaked through, I sit and watch the gently sleeping faces of every other person on board.
Consider squirting Pablo in the face with my last remaining insect repellent. Only just manage the self control to resist.
Reach Puerto Siles, where we have to stop and have the boat’s papers checked. Some take the opportunity to go on land and buy fresh bread, I mime to Eric’s wife that she should get some fresh drinking water.
She understands me to mean that I want to give her some of my water. When I don’t she huffs off. I am certain she is angry with me now.
The rain stops, and the attitude lightens considerably. Everyone puts their clothes out to dry, but as I have no spares I try and make myself into a clothesline.
Eric’s wife gleefully tells me that I smell. At least I think that’s what she said, I had to stop listening to take a swig from my beautifully clean drinking water…
We stop again, and I am amazed at the over efficiency of the Bolivian navy checking our papers twice. But much more importantly everyone from the boat is playing soccer with the local villagers.
In a commentators delight the Boat Team opens the scoring when the mechanic passes to the cook… unfortunately from then they are obliterated 6-2. I try to comfort our guys but a soccer loss is a hard one to take.
As consolation we relieve the village of roughly a thousand bananas.
I have set up my bed in what I hope will be a better spot, even utilising some of the banana stalks as sandbags against potential flooding. It works, and I sleep brilliantly.
Day 6: Frontera
Pablo wakes me again. This time he doesn’t want repellent: we are just about to hit Brazil, he informs me (what he actually said was “Brazil ahora!”- Brazil now!).
Consider purchasing ‘Pablo Repellent’, he woke me up two hours too early (just when I had stopped having dreams about that disgusting pig). But seeing the border is kind of exciting, I have never been to Brazil before.
We underwent a Spanish Inquisition at the Port Siles inspection, but going past Brazil we merely do two circles in the middle of the river and continue on our way. I am not sure if it’s the insanity of not speaking English for six days, but I think I hear the petrol tanker ask “does this barge make my arse look fat?”
Stop on the Brazil side (and me without my visa!!) and walk up the bank to a big tree. I am passed a stick 6 metres long and told to hit the tree. When I do I am nearly brained by a descending mango- literally hundreds fall from the tree as I bash it repeatedly. The kids scurry around loading up bags. When I finally put the stick down I find one unripe mango left for me.
Return to the boat to find a soccer game has started up. Decide to give it a go when disaster strikes: I fall awkwardly on my knee (accompanied to a delightful ripping sound). I hobble towards the sideline where the cook tries to rub it better. He wants to bend it back but I convince him otherwise (it seems the phrase “f**k off that f**king kills” truly is international).
Back on the boat I am in a lot of pain. Various people try to help, with remedies ranging from strange ointments to clapping their hands and muttering incantations.
It does nothing though: my knee is the size of a pineapple and I can’t walk.
Starts raining incredibly hard and it takes me half an hour to get into the dining room, so I cut my losses and sleep under the dinner table. Pablo comes in and cuddles up to me, it’s cold and he’s good company to have. Feel bad for ever wanting to spray insecticide in his face.
Pablo kicks me in the knee. All desires to cause grievous bodily harm are back.
Day 7: Guayaramerín
We land at Guayaramerín, I struggle ashore dragging my pack behind me and moving at the grand speed of 1 metre per hour.
I could tell you more about having surgery in the Guayaramerín hospital in front of 30 giggling medical students, or of catching motorcycle taxis with my leg sticking straight out at right angles, or of being stuck for two days in the airport because it was too dangerous for planes to land.
But this is truly one of those occasions when the old wife's tale is true: the journey is often better than the destination.
Going up the river with a clue
Flights from La Paz to Trinidad cost 457 Bs, less with a student card.
Guayaramerín to La Paz is 999 Bs, via Riberalta or Rurrenabaque.
Be prepared in both instances to be a puppet of the weather: planes cannot land or takeoff on the dirt runways at Guayaramerín when it is raining.
Organise a boat up the river at Puerto Almacen on the Rio Ibare, 8 km south west of Trinidad. A motorbike taxi to the port shouldn’t cost more than 10 Bs, the boat trip should cost 200 Bs (including food, but check that this is part of the deal)
You will need a hammock, mosquito net, insect repellent, clean drinking water, lots of loo paper, a book or walkman, a change of clothes, and a relaxed attitude. Given the standard of medical care available it is advisable to take a good medical kit, particularly including syringes.
Pink Dolphins in White Suits
Seriously surreal. That is the only way to describe the sight of a big pink fish jumping out of the water ahead of the boat.
Perhaps even more surreal are the local legends surrounding the bufeo (a strange prehistoric looking creature which can change its skin colour from pale grey to light pink in a manner similar to a chameleon).
The best local legend has it that the bufeo can transform itself into human form as a suave gentleman wearing a white suit. Many unwanted pregnancies in the region are blamed on this mythical form.
When not impregnating the locals in its human form, the lucky bufeo is thought to live in an underwater city where the pavements are made of turtle shells and hammocks are strung up from anacondas.
Regardless of myth, seeing the dolphins is a great experience not to be missed. Just be careful if the person standing next to you is wearing a white suit…