Tag Archives: Santa Cruz

On a mission

18 Aug
Bolivia missions: Concepcion

The Jesuit mission churches – like this one in Concepcion – have been beautifully restored.

Salta, Argentina
[by Paula]

Given how unbelievably sweaty, dusty and thirsty we were, it was hard to imagine how it must have been for the 17th-century Jesuit priests who had to trek here from Paraguay. I mean, I don’t think they even had ice cream shops then.

The majority of our associations with Bolivia are of the fresh air and mountain backdrops of the altiplano, so travelling through these baking hot tropical plains felt like we’d been transported to another country. Each time we had to search for a shady spot, or drive round a zillion little shops looking for ice, we said: “This just doesn’t feel like Bolivia.”

The eastern lowlands of the country may be less known by tourists, but they cover a vast area, accounting for about two-thirds of Bolivia’s land mass. We had headed south-west from Cochabamba with a plan to visit a series of former Jesuit missions, established in the late 1600s and early 1700s as settlements that were – of course – each centred around an elaborate church. The towns – in which numerous groups of indigenous people were converted to Christianity by the Jesuits before they were expelled by the Spanish king in 1767 – are still living, working communities. The central squares and churches have been lovingly restored and are a sight to behold that way exceeded our expectations.

The thing about the ‘missions circuit’ though, is that it’s not just all about wandering around looking at lovely churches and plazas. There’s a bit of an awkward 1,000km journey through the countryside to get round the major ones, and clearly that was something we couldn’t resist.

Bolivia missions: Dusty roads

Dusty and bumpy roads, but beautiful scenery.

We picked a clockwise route that bypassed the city of Santa Cruz and first headed north towards the oldest of the mission towns, San Xavier. We’d got hold of a pretty detailed guide to the different missions and how to get there. On day two of driving we were finally getting close! We just had to cross a little river and we’d be a few kilometres from our first destination. There was just one thing missing from the maps and info – the lack of a bridge over the river.

After a confusing search through a dusty town for the ‘road’ to San Xavier, we were very baffled to find a rickety wooden platform jutting out and then ending suddenly on a muddy riverbed. Where’s the bridge? we pondered, squinting into the sun in search of hope.

Nope, definitely no bridge. We were expected to descend from the platform and then drive about 300m over the damp clay-ish mud and through a few streams to get to the road on the other side. Our instincts screamed ‘this will end badly!’.
A bunch of slightly drunk guys were, hilariously, charging drivers 100 Bolivianos ($14) to make the crossing. As we pondered and watched other drivers successfully making it over, they kept saying “you’ll be fine, you’ll do it!”. The thing is they, were probably right, there was a reasonably high chance we would have made it without getting trapped in the gluey mud, or without sinking into one of the streams. I just wasn’t in the mood to take the chance with our heavy van, on which we’d just spent a lot of time and money doing maintenance work, knowing how much we would kick ourselves if it went wrong.

In these situations, when lots of people are yelling in our ears with ‘helpful advice’, we have learned to stop and think carefully and ask ourselves questions such as these: Do they know what they are talking about? What will they gain/lose if we decide to go or not go? Do they give a shit about what happens to our car? If one car a day needs to get pulled out of this riverbed, how likely is it that it will be us?!

It was agony, but in the end we went with our instincts. There was a long way round to get to a different section of the route, with a bridge, that would involve several hours of extra driving. With heavy hearts we turned around, hooted and waved to the drunks and, with that, ended their afternoon of entertainment.

Over the next few hours of rutted roads that never seemed to end, we grumbled but deep down knew we’d done the right thing. Interestingly, the detour took is through three villages named Okinawa I, II and III – a corner of Bolivia that’s home to people who arrived from Okinawa as sponsored migrants in the 1950s. Tiny elderly women of Japanese descent scurried around the streets. One was so small she walked under our wing mirror without ducking. “This really doesn’t feel like Bolivia!” we repeated.

The change of route meant the day ended with us pulling into a gas station in the dark, to spend the night. The fact that they sold ice-cold beer lightened the mood considerably.

In the morning we started again with renewed vigour. We arrived in San Xavier by lunchtime, and thought ‘well, if this is what we’re getting, we can live with a little discomfort’.

Bolivia missions: San Xavier

San Xavier’s plaza and Jesuit church.

Founded in 1691, it was the first of the mission settlements in the Chiquitania region. It set the scene for a series of gorgeous, pristine, plazas and church complexes we were to visit on our circuit.

But damn it was hot. It seemed like a long time since we had experienced the 50-metre-dash-to-the-shade-via-the-first-ice-cream-we-can-find race. We escaped to a hotel garden to camp for the night. A weird and, as it turned out, virtually abandoned, place – where the caretaker lied about it being open to justify charging us an exorbitant camping rate – but a haven nonetheless.

Next was Concepción, one of the best restored and conventionally beautiful of the mission towns. In a recurring theme of the week, we arrived just as everything was closing for a massive siesta. While waiting for the church and museum to reopen we killed the time by enjoying our first taste of the region’s food – a succulent roast beef, with a bizarre but strangely comforting cheesy ‘rice pudding’, yucca and plantains. More carbs anyone?

Roast beef and cheesy rice

Cowboy food: Roast beef, cheesy rice, yucca and plantains.

The next section to San Ignacio was quite long, but we’d read the road had recently been paved so set off to see how far we could get. That thing we read about the road being paved? That was a work of fiction. Not far out of Concepción we hit the start of a 400km stretch of hard-packed mud and gravel roads that would last all the way to our 6th and final destination. We’d expected plenty of it, but just not this much.

It slowed things down a bit, and we and the van turned a nice orange dust colour in the process, but all was well and the route was very pretty. With no prospect of arriving at any town before dark, we pulled into a tiny village and asked if we could park up for the night – of course, they said, pointing us towards the church. Two young boys were sent over later to deliver about 25 bananas to us. ‘We grow them here,’ they said, before sitting down for a chat and a glass of lemonade.

It was certainly one of the quietest and darkest nights we’d ever had. Our van shone like a beacon as none of the four houses in the village, nor the church or school, had electricity.

On the way to San Ignacio the following day we encountered a rare section of road that was being worked on. A bus coming towards us slipped and slid through the churned up mud and came to a halt at a jaunty angle. As all the passengers got off to walk through the rest of the roadworks, we thought ‘hmm, don’t really fancy driving through that’. Luckily the workmen had the same thought and sent a tractor ahead of us to pave our way.

We were glad to arrive in San Ignacio, a bigger town where we planned to base ourselves for a couple of nights. With the heat and dust we were, by this time, pretty stinky and hot and were keen on finding a shower. We had a very sweaty, fruitless search for somewhere to camp before eventually being directed to some ‘cabanas’ on the edge of town. We bumped along a farm track before arriving at a sumptuous hacienda with its own private lake, and thought ‘jackpot!’. Problem was, it was now the private home of a rich guy who seemed a little surprised at our asking to camp. Jeremy made his best disappointed face and he agreed that we could park up in the garden but could offer zero facilities. Another night of being smelly and hot then, but a partial jackpot as the location was amazing.

Next day we got a cheap hotel room to hang out and rest for a bit – we wanted to stay around for the evening because the rodeo was in town! Brilliant. It was part of a big agricultural expo event, so we ambled along and spent the evening wandering the stalls, drinking beers and cocktails, eating chunks of barbequed meat and generally wishing we were cowboys. But cowboys don’t drink cocktails, we hear you cry. Well they did at this event, which was crammed with Brazilians from over the nearby border. Every other stall was selling the Brazilian signature cocktail ‘caipirinhas’ and people seemed to be talking a hybrid S-Portuguese. “This doesn’t feel like Bolivia,” we said.

Just before the rodeo got going – three hours later than billed, you’ve got to love Latin America-time – the contestants lined up to pray and cross themselves. It was a great few hours of entertainment and people-watching, though what motivates people to get themselves violently tossed around then thrown off a bull or horse and slammed into the dust is beyond me. There must be a lot of work for osteopaths in these places.

We moved on to the two smaller missions of San Miguel and San Rafael. These places are becoming more popular with visitors but they are not exactly crawling with groups of tourists. At the first we had to search the town for the guy who had the key to the church. Several people told us ‘Carmelo’s the guy you need, he’s a few blocks that way..’ We wandered in the afternoon heat, asking for Carmelo. ‘That door up there,’ ‘No, the next house…’.

Eventually Carmelo appeared at his window, stretching, having just awoken from his siesta. He pulled on a shirt and walked back to the plaza with us, chatting away enthusiastically about how he’s been showing people round the place since he was a child, and is now in his 70s. After a fascinating little tour, we headed off to the next place on our circuit.

Again, in San Rafael there was nowhere obvious to camp. We asked at the tiny police station on the plaza where they thought might be best to park up. ‘Right here, outside the station!’ they insisted.

We wandered off to watch the Sunday night mass in the Jesuit church, and sat in the busy square cooling off before heading to bed. It’s a quaint little village, but we had one of the noisiest night’s sleep ever, with cars passing, donkeys braying, cockerels going at it, horse clopping by and a huge crowd of people flooding out of a late night meeting.

It’s not an easy trip to do by public transport. As we left early next morning we picked up two Swiss tourists who’d been left high and dry due to a fictional bus timetable. We all bumped along on the final four hours of dirt road, to the spectacular town of San Jose de Chiquitos, with its atypical baroque-style church.

Bolivia missions: San Jose de Chiquitos

San Jose de Chiquitos has a stunning, and unique for the area, Baroque-style church.

Joy of joys, the town had a luxurious camping place, in the garden of a posh hotel. Just the prize we had hoped for after getting to the end of the circuit. We got things cleaned up a bit and recharged a little before the next stage of the journey.

Question was, what was the next stage going to be? There were other things we wanted to see in Bolivia, but we only had two days left on our vehicle permit before we’d either have to apply for an extension or get out of the country. It was a painful dilemma, but having had 6 wonderful months in Bolivia we decided to end it on a high and not go through the hassle of battling with the customs people in Santa Cruz.

Besides, we had an incredible itch to turn south and cross the border into Argentina. This trip is full of little and big milestones, but after all the drama we’ve had with the van, actually making it to Argentina is up there with the biggies.

We’d still have a long way to go but crossing that line would feel, to a small extent, like mission accomplished.

Days: 1,050
Miles: 22,906
Things we now know to be true: If you don’t have the ability to see into the future, go with your gut.

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Over the top

2 Jun
Punta Union pass, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

The view as you come over the top of the Punta Union Pass, Cordillera Blanca, Peru, is more than enough reward for the climb.

Cusco, Peru
[by Paula]

There was a time in our lives when we thought we were beach people. From our London desks we used to dream of building some little cabañas in Zanzibar or on the Pacific coast of the Americas, and living out the years with the sand between our toes. But one thing this trip has taught us is that, while we will always love visiting the beach, it is the mountains that truly make us salivate.

That’s where nature is at its most over-the-top melodramatic, where the extremes make life both exhilarating and harsh, and where the landscapes can actually make you well up with emotion. And when it comes to mountains that could make you weep with both pleasure and pain, the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca in the Peruvian Andes is up there among the best experiences we’ve had on our travels.

Bolivia reunion

Don, Rochelle and Naomi – of Bolivia days – coincided with us in Huanchaco.

Before heading for the snow, we’d spent rather a long time basking like lizards on the warm coast. We lingered in Huanchaco for longer than planned, enjoying a few home comforts and something we hadn’t experienced for a while – a social life. A bit of lucky timing led to a reunion with our Bolivia housemate Naomi, whom we lived with near La Paz for four months, plus fellow volunteers Don and Rochelle.

We were all heading from dinner to a bar one night when we popped our heads into a place that sounded like it was having a fiesta. It turned out it was a charitable mother’s day evening, being held for some of the poorer families in the town. None of us is quite sure how it happened, but before we knew it the feisty mama in charge had convinced Naomi (an accomplished singer) to get up and do a turn for the crowd, while we were all bundled into the kitchen to serve tamales to an 80-strong gathering of hungry people. Sometimes this life is just plain weird.

Meanwhile we were also resolving an issue we’d had with loss of coolant fluid in the van. Two rare things happened regarding that – first, the VW dealer in Trujillo was full of helpful, skilled people who knew what to do. Secondly, when they told us which piece of the van had broken (the water pump), Jeremy was able to produce the relevant part from the back of the van with a little triumphant flourish. Crisis averted!

There was one other reason for our slight malingering. Everyone we met who was coming north from the mountains was reporting how rainy, cold and relentlessly miserable it was. ‘We had to get out and escape to the coast!’ they all said.

Oh dear. So we headed for the hills with some trepidation, but mentally prepared to dig out the waterproofs and just go for it.

After a, predictably, noisy night sleeping at a toll booth on the motorway we turned inland and starting slowly climbing. Before long we had our first glimpse of a jagged snowy peak. Hello again Andes! We all caught our breath with a lunch stop and some coca tea as we came over a pass at more than 4,000m to find what was to be the first of a string of gorgeous lakes. It felt great to be back on the altiplano.

Fortaleza Pass, road to Huaraz, Peru

Feeling on top of the world at the Fortaleza Pass, on the road to Huaraz.

What’s more, we appeared to have turned up at the very moment that spring was springing. Could it really be true? We snapped a gazillion photos, grateful for the bright skies and taking advantage of every moment, lest the weather should turn again. After a sweaty search for somewhere to park in the trekking hub of Huaraz, we gave up and found a fabulous campspot further north, at the back of a hotel with a great view of the mountains, which turned pink at sunset.

On the morning of day three we set out for a mountain lodge we’d read would accept vehicle campers. We bumped up a long winding dirt road, giving the new gearbox a bit of a workout. We finally found the un-marked, un-signposted lodge and wobbled up the final little stretch to the camping area, which sits at about 3,500m.

What a view – yet more snow-capped craggy peaks, and what seemed like our own private lake just over the brow of the hill from our campspot. We had a doorless toilet, we had no shower, and the nights and mornings were freezing – but sometimes location beats everything. The summer clothes were buried under the seats, and out came the big jackets and woolly hats.

The whole Cordilleras area is trekking heaven, and we set about making a plan. We started with a perfect acclimatisation trek to Llanganuco lakes. In order to really see them at their glittering, unfeasibly turquoise best, you really need the sun to shine. Unbelievably, it kept shining and the lush valley and forest were in full bloom after the rains.

Laguna Chinancocha, Peru

Laguna Chinancocha, Quebrada Llanganuco, PN Huascaran, Peru

We’d previously learned some lessons about altitude and were taking plenty of precautions with acclimatising, drinking gallons of coca tea and cutting down on the booze. Nevertheless we still had a few doubts about taking on the main trek we wanted to do in the area – the Santa Cruz, a four-day, three-night hike that would involve passes of more than 4,700m and chilly camping at up to 4,200m. Could we hack it? What if it pissed with rain for four days? And we know we’re not totally ancient, but group treks like these inevitably involve the majority of people being roughly half our age and we hate the thought of being the old farts dragging behind.

But we were feeling good – amazing, in fact – so we signed up and crossed our fingers for the weather.

It was a rainy start. We drove with the guide and cook to the village of Vaqueria. It seemed like we’d never stop climbing into the clouds. The road was rocky and narrow, but incredibly scenic. We looked down on the lakes we’d visited a couple of days before, from about 1,000m above, while Jeremy clutched the side of his seat. At Vaqueria we all stood in the mud and rain while the decidedly cheesed-off looking mules were packed up and covered with blue plastic sheeting.

Unhappy mule

Eeyore is really really looking forward to the trek.

We hiked along muddy paths, through villages with rudimentary houses that endure months of this weather every year – who were we to complain? In any case, we were well equipped for the weather. Jeremy has taken to hiking in his wellies. This had quite an effect on the locals we passed by, because rubber boots are the shoe of choice for just about every campesino in Latin America. The locals are used to seeing foreigners trooping past every day in their branded hiking gear, but not in a pair of $5 wellies like they wear.

We’d see them checking out his feet and giggling. As is the way with many people here, they are too reserved to shout something in your face, but wait until you are just at the edge of hearing distance.

Botas lindas!” (lovely boots!) called a group of women as Jeremy was already stamping up the hill. He swung round to look at them and they collapsed into near hysterics. I kept a close watch on him, in case he was snatched by a group of horny campesinas.

We arrived at our campsite that afternoon as the skies were clearing, and drank yet more gallons of coca tea. Good thing about the skies clearing = a billion stars blanketing the sky and the snowy mountains above being illuminated by the moon. Less good thing = a bloody freezing night in which you must encase your whole body and hatted head inside your sleeping bag. At one point I had to shout to make myself heard over the noise of the river, to inform Jeremy that I had managed to tangle my toggle, entirely trapping myself inside and getting into a minor panic.

We set off early with an eight-hour day ahead, and began the ascent to the highest point of the trek – the Punta Union pass at 4,750m (15,584ft). It was a long and incredibly satisfying day. We were lucky that we felt strong in our heads and legs. At times I felt positively gazelle-like. Altitude sickness seems not to discriminate about who it chooses to strike on any given day. A fit 23-year-old rugby player in our group had the hardest trek of her life that day, but it could have been any of us. We stuck together, climbing past beautiful lakes that reflected the white caps of the mountains above, and getting closer and closer to the snow line.

Just before lunch we could see the v-shape that we were heading for in the rocks above. With lots of little stops required, we plodded steadily to the top. There was a lot of whooping and waving as we came over the pass. The rugby player sat down and had a little cry.

And that was all before we’d even seen the jaw-dropping view that was just over the brow of the hill. The most stunning turquoise glacier lake, backed by the razor-edged snowy Nevada Taulliraju and an increasingly blue sky. After taking it all in we settled down for lunch. It was a pretty unbeatable picnic spot.

Lunch stop - Punta Union pass

Lunch with a view.

As we started to head off down the valley, there was a loud crack, and we turned to see a chunk of ice fall from the glacier, smash into a zillion pieces and hurtle into the lake. Brilliant.

We’d had a blissfully dry day but as we arrived at camp as the skies blackened. Good thing about the clouds = it was a warmer night. Less good thing = it lashed with rain all night long, we mopped puddles in the tent and got drenched every time we went for a pee. On nights like that, it’s dinner at 6pm and bed by 8pm. The deluge stopped just in time for our 5.30am start, wet tents were stuffed into bags and off we went.

Day three was another long and glorious (downhill) hike, involving close-ups of two other glacier lakes and an amazing ‘is-this-another-planet?’ quebrada with a sandy floor and huge purple lupin bushes. Valley on Santa Cruz trek

We’d barely seen any proper toilets for many days. On the way up to the glacier lake in the morning I was excited to see a rundown ex-toilet. Not in a great condition, but at least they have doors, I thought. I peered into the first cubicle – there was a whole dead cow inside, in an advanced state of decomposition. Hmm. We’ve seen some spectacularly rancid toilets on our travels, but that was another first. Undeterred, I went into the next cubicle, but it was rather distracting to think of the rotting corpse next door.

Moving on, we descended into a lush river valley and finally, happily, arrived at a gorgeous, sunny, sheltered campspot right by the water. Although it wasn’t quite the end, we only had a couple of hours to go the next morning and we were in celebratory mood. We’d (almost) done it! With the 9-hour hike behind us and the sound of the river next to our tent, we slept like babies.

Our final descent took us through a deep rocky gorge to the village of Cashapampa, where we collapsed into the minibus and drove along yet another spectacular mountain track to Yungay. We got back to our van and enjoyed a night of proper shelter and a soft bed.

But after all that trekking we still had no prospect of a shower. In fact we’d set another trip record, by going 9 consecutive days without soap and water. Not good, for anyone involved.

By day 10 we thought, ‘perhaps we should do something about that’. We packed up and set off back down the valley towards Huaraz. Just before the town we pulled into a kind of public baños, that had private suites for hire containing a sauna, steamroom and hot shower.

It took the full hour to steam, scrape and scrub the dirt off. We’d absolutely loved the Cordillera Blanca, which had given us the best reason we’ve ever had for becoming offensively filthy. But getting clean was the best £8.50 ($14) we’ve ever spent.

Days: 973
Miles: 20,235
Things we now know to be true: Like Elvis, cows sometimes die in toilets.

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