From Santa Cruz to Samaipata

Nick Says: Arriving in Santa Cruz completely changed our perspective on Bolivia. I don´t know about you, but all I heard about the place (apart from things to see) was how poor it was, and how cheap everything is. Well take a trip to Santa Cruz and decide if you’re really in some ´third world slum country. The city is super modern, with bars and cafes that wouldn’t look out of place in London. It’s an obviously wealthy city, with all the youngsters sporting designer clothes (not fake ones either like other parts of the country!) and flashing their brand new iPhones around. We actually felt like the poor relations being there.

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After a day mooching around the place, which is incredibly easy to walk around for a city of 1 million plus, we decided it was time to go and meet some other backpackers. While Bee’s Spanish is certainly getting us around the place, and making friends, it’s hard to have truly in-depth conversations. To try and rectify this we went to the city’s Irish Pub, according to the Lonely Planet “a backpackers second home”. Except it wasn’t at all! It was definitely a local hang-out. And also a very clean-cut local hang-out… as everyone seemed to be drinking juice or milkshakes in there. We felt like the naugty kids sipping on our Pacena beers, lovingly wrapped in kitchen roll. Even Guiness was off the menu (they´d run out?). The only part of Irish-Pub-Bingo they did tick off was that they played The Cranberries on repeat.  Afterwards we stepped out onto the main plaza where we witnessed our first protest of the trip. It was a very chilled out affair actually, as it was an anti-violence protest, so no riots just yet. We then made the most of the fancy city and went to another ice cream parlour, the best one yet. Vaca Fria was an ultra-cool ice cream bar which looked like it belonged in Shoreditch and served dulche de leche ice cream. I’m going to come home a massive fatty at this rate.

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We were really impressed with how many cultural events were going on in Santa Cruz. we witnessed a Bolivian X Factor auditions round (!) and a big free concert featuring a local kids marching band troupe and some African inspired performances too. They were real family affairs and a great (cheap) way to pass the siesta slump where everything else shuts down.

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Having exhausted the sight-seeing options of Santa Cruz (there’s not really any, and Aqualand, the local waterpark, was closed) we took an early morning stroll to the shared taxi rank, and then onwards to Samaipata.

Bee Says: Samaipata wasn´t on our original itinerary, but we were both tempted by it´s description as a friendly, sunny spot high in the mountains. We also were in dire need of a little luxury after our many hours clocked up in bus seats followed by our budget Santa Cruz hostel (the nicest thing Lonely Planet could say about it was that it had hospital style beds!) and in Samaipata we could stay at the La Paosada del Sol – a little piece of heaven for weary travellers! It´s run by a jovial Texan man and his lovely Bolivian wife. Here we had a COMFY bed, hot water, access to a laundry service and the best food of the trip so far. The hostel has a restaurant attached with incredible local chefs serving up traditional and American fusion food, and everything we ate was mouth watering. A real change from 20p street empanadas! We had wanted to do the Che trail, but sadly we hadn´t clocked that it was a 2 day (and pretty pricey) thing, so we parked that plan and instead headed out to El Fuerte, our first archaeological site. El Fuerte is unique, in that it encompasses buildings of three different cultures: Chanés, Incas, and Spaniards. The Chane carved rock is probably the star of the show though, with its still-visable depictions of jaguar, puma and the carved lines of a snake, where llamas were slaughtered and the blood running down from the top of the stone would make the snake appear to crawl. The incan ruins were also pretty amazing, we noted the narrowness of the doorways that were still stranding, “no fat people in Incan times” our guide chuckled. I guess they didnt eat those llamas they were sacrificing.

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We were lucky to have a guide who spoke some English and could explain just how incredible the site is, as it sits almost exactly between the four regions of Bolivia; Andes, Amazones,Oriente & Guay. When you stand at the top – one side of the mountain is covered in forest, the other is completely bare. It´s that extreme! El Fuerte also sits in line with the Isla de Sol and Machu Pichu… pretty goosebumpy stuff, how on earth did these people know how to work it out so many thousands of years ago? I still struggle catching the right night bus!

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This was our first taste of proper altitude, at 2000m above sea level. It was amazing to see eagles soaring… below us! We had been tipped off that Samaipata was the best condor spotting location in the world, so after missing out on Che we signed up to go on a days hike and bird spotting. We eagerly work up at 5.30am on our first day, only to be told that storms in the night had flooded the already quiet tough pathway to the condors. ALAS. Instead we got a different taste of wildlife at the wonderful animal refuge, a 4k round trip scenic walk to reach and a fascinating place, full of animals rescued from the black market. Free monkeys bounded around our heads, I saw my first hummingbird and Nick saw… tortoises having sex. Not quite a condor, but he couldnt complain. By this stage we had made friends with a lovely Dutch couple, and were really enjoying having some travel buddies again to explore with (and make the most of Happy Hour with). We woke at 5.30am again the next day, for condor hike attempt 2… only to hear rain pelting down and be told the flooding was now even worse. It was disappointing but as we hadn´t gone to Samaipata especially to do it, it wasn´t the end of the world and the place is beautiful an brilliant enough to keep us entertained for a few lazy days of pottering around the mountain edges and drinking hot chocolate in cafes. It felt like a much needed holiday. But with rainy season making itself known early, we felt we better get moving to Uyuni sharpish, as the salt flats become only partially visitable once the wet sets in. Time to leave our Care Bear life in the clouds…

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Nick Says: The place we were staying also seemed to be magnet for ex-pat business owners all around Bolivia to come and meet up. One night we were sat next to them all, and couldn’t help but overhear the loudest guy complain loudly about how Bolivian bus drivers are very much exploited and forced to drive all hours, which led directly to the World’s Most Dangerous Road near La Paz getting its moniker. A fine point you may think, but the guy who made it also happened to be the owner of one of the biggest bike rental companies who organise tours down that same road. So in effect he was making a living from these bus drivers being exploited. Did I say anything to him? No. Should I have? Perhaps. I didn`t for several reasons. One was it would have caused a big argument in the middle of their dinner, probably not the coolest thing to do. Others were that I don’t understand Bolivia sufficiently enough to enter into that kind of argument. It’s never clever to argue unprepared. His company do have a reputation for being the safest, so perhaps he thinks that unless he runs a good company, others will not? And finally, me and Bee have been catching a lot of long distance buses – aren´t we also exploiting the drivers then? Hmm, it`s one of those ethical dilemmas which could tie you into knots.

But no sooner had we digested all of this, then it was time to get one of these buses. A change in plan had meant we were now heading to Sucre, the official capital of Bolivia. And I’m not going to lie when I say the last thing I was thinking of was the possible exploitation of the driver. No, instead I was thinking if I was going to live through the night. Now I don’t mean to come across as a ´been there, done that’ boaster when I say I’ve done my fair share of terrifying drives. There’s been buses zooming along a cliff face with the doors open and me close to sliding out, others where might equals right, and taxis where the driver has fallen asleep. Suffice it to say though, this was up there as one of the scariest of my life. Our driver decided to floor it non-stop to Sucre along a tiny mountain road (rock track?), with not a straight line in sight, and multiple rock-slides evident. We were at the front of the bus, and therefore given a prime view of every single near miss we had, and every car/van/truck/bus we almost clipped as our driver suicidally overtook around blind corners. I tried to sleep and couldn’t. I didn’t expect to live the night.

Bee Says: I was already apprehensive about this bus journey to Sucre, as over dinner the night before, I had also heard Worlds Most Dangerous Road Man mention that a Micro (the shared taxis from Santa Cruz… yes the very same type we had ridden to get to Samaipata days before) had plunged over the mountain. A little rattled by this, I accepted it was going to be a little white knuckle, but add to that the torrential downpour that happily showed up for the hour before we boarded, and I was desperate for it to all be over. I was however comforted by the fact we have done 6 night bus journies now in various countries and all of them have been absolutely fine… plus the drive UP the mountain hadn´t been bad at all. This faux bravado dissolved the second we sat down in the bus and saw that it was unlike any previous buses. This bus was fitted with a ROLL CAGE. When I was 16, my first boyfriend was a boy racer (laugh it up! I´m from Bradford ok!) and so I know enough to know that you only fit roll cages to vehicles that are most likely going to end up on their roof at some point. As we´d boarded, the nice old man who´d sold us our ticket had hugged us goodbye and wished us safe travels, and I remember being taken aback as South Americans so far have been very shake-hands formal. The hug took me by surprise, but now I had the sinking feeling that he really was wishing us good luck and some last minute comfort for what he knew was about to be a nightmareish 12 hours.

Then we started driving, and that is about the point that I started trying to remember the words to the Lords Prayer. As Nick said, our driver was gunning up and down these miniscule mountain dirt roads, over taking anything in sight. Many times we were creaking around corners so hazerdously that the bus was on two wheels, flinging us side to side (with added burning smell). If it hadnt been pitch black, in a remote Bolivian mountain (and with no phone signal, o2 hasnt got network pals in Bolivia) I would have got OFF the bus and walked to Sucre. Instead we were trapped and all we could do was grip hands and hope above hope that the we made it in one piece. Maybe I am doing the driver a dis-service, I imagine he does this drive hundreds of times a year therefore is confident in his maverick motoring ways, but we haven´t had a driver like that yet (and really dont want one again). The one glimmer of good in the treacherous trip was, as usual, the wildlife. We saw wild mountain cats and at about 3am in the morning, in the middle of nowhere, we passed a pack of wolves. The adults appeared to be about the size of donkeys, and protecting a smaller cub. It felt like the one point of the night we drove slowly, so we could really get a good gaze of these spectacular creatures.

We arrived to Sucre dazed, sleep deprived but delirious to be unscathed. The experience meant we added a nights stay here in Sucre, as neither of us fancy boarding a bus again tomorrow. Instead we are going to a dinosaur park!!! And then our bus to Uyuni on Friday will most definitely be in the DAY time. Lesson learned: NO NIGHT BUSES IN THE ANDES EVER AGAIN.

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