Travelling to Cobija
Slightly out of the Ordinary
For those interested in stepping outside the realm of normality, this may be the place for you. Cobija, a small border town that furtively fights for both its historic and present existence, lies isolated in the depths of the Amazonian jungle. Home to just over 1500 extraordinary people this town is no place for those with an interest in hyperactive and hyperbolic tourism.
Cut off from the rest of the world Cobija seems to have reevaluated the daily routine. The day to day life entails the thrill of a circular motorcycle ride, the variety of eating at a different table in the same old restaurant and the excitement of illegally crossing a border. Let us not allow this to distract from the curious enticement of a small inscrutable town filled with fascinating looking people, for, in spite of its dearth of tourism, there was something indefinably attractive about the place.
After a nerve racking flight we arrived at the airport terminal, a building just a little too small to be taken seriously, slightly run down and lacking facilities, but nevertheless interestingly designed in such a way that it looks to have come from a failing science-fiction film set. But please don’t let first impressions spoil your stay. At least leave it to the baggage handling before you make up your mind. You’ll be presented with one of the most mind boggling, inefficient systems imaginable. The entire cargo of the plane is channeled through a couple of disenchanted workers, whilst the 727 passengers vie for a place in a melee of indistinguishable bodies employing a variety of techniques to get just 1cm closer to the front. It sounds worse than it was although it was impossible to suppress a grin as a small Bolivian man, chest swelled, arms braced, eyes fixed, made his dying attempt for the front with an acrobatic swimming dive.
So, after the obligatory mishap with our bags we made our way out into the sweltering heat of the Amazon. Outside we were met by a wave of taxi drivers with an array of motorbikes, all offering us a hair raising ride.
Driving through the dust swept streets of Cobija in the afternoon heat you would be forgiven for thinking you had arrived in a lawless town. Passing along Avenida 9th Febrero it is difficult to deny the mild feeling of apprehension as you roll past the gated shops and the dilapidated market stalls. But as it were there was also something attractive in the dilapidation, a palpable indistinguishable charm.
La Residencia Frontera, our hostel for the first evening, typified over-priced budget accommodation travelling. We felt a little hard done by having to pay Bs 100 for a 3 person room, with a whirring fan and a creaking door. This hostel would, however, cater perfectly for the majority of travelers who use Cobija purely as a stopping point. Cobija has indeed the distinct feeling of a town inured and now complacent of the travelers who simply pass through.
Such a characteristic made it hard to find any modicum of tourism. We searched extensively for some tourist activities and opportunities, only to be met by an informative part-time travel agent who told us that the tourist industry had yet to start up. Any activities such as visiting Lago Bahia would have to be organized two or three days in advance. Cobija’s lack of structured tourism reflects the city’s struggle for recognition even on the political stage. Presently there is talk of investing money into Cobija’s hopeful industry.
We found that the most efficient, trustworthy and welcoming people are at the tourist police office in the centre of town. Initially we went there to book a trustworthy taxi to take us to Puerto Rico where we hoped to be able to fish and trek in the jungle. It would be a three hour journey and cost U$ 80 so we wanted assurance that we weren’t heading for a kidnapping. Once at the office however, we were given coffee by an obliging secretary and informed of a much closer and cheaper alternative which we could go on the following day.
The alternative was Los Laguitos. Los Laguitos cattle ranch, fish farm and jungle treks are run by an American theologian and rancher who, because of his missionary parents, was brought up in Bolivia. His tourist attraction is a pastime for him and he works as he chooses. If you are interested, ask the tourist police to ring him and arrange a tour although no promises can be made that he will accommodate you.
The night life in Cobija consists of over priced night clubs and karaoke bars. Bear in mind that the night clubs open quite late, around 23:00 and will cost you roughly Bs. 30 to get in. With the assumption of being able to hear some quality music we waited patiently for The John Lennon Club to open. At 23:20 after painfully enduring an hour and a half of karaoke, we crossed the road to be bitterly disappointed by the DJ’s choice of atrocious dance music.
The only good thing about the club was that the Brazilians cross the border to go to the Lennon Bar which is something of a novelty. You can legally cross the border to Brazil without having to bring your passport and the contrast between these adjoining border towns is remarkable. Over the border Brazilian flags flamboyantly decorate walls and curbs of the town. This mini Brazilian experience was made possible by the tourist police who kindly gave us a guide who accompanied us around Cobija and over the bridge to Brazil.
This guide will also escort you to Cobija’s museum where you can observe an assortment of exotic animals and catch a glimpse of the one and only two headed calf ever recorded in history.
If you are a package holiday enthusiast I would not recommend this city. However, if you are looking for an authentic, unspoiled and slightly out of the ordinary Latin American experience, this may just be the place for you.
Tom Bousfield & Edmund Buckley