We’ve just returned from six days in or near Villa Tunari, a small town just 160 km from Cochabamba, but 2200 metres lower, in the Chapare region – gateway to the Amazon basin. To organize and remember our impressions we came up with a Top Ten in the Chapare list to share with you. We also have a Bottom Ten, just so we aren’t accused of only presenting the more presentable side of things here, but we’ll try not to elaborate on the negative stuff too much because it’s not much fun to dwell on.
Chapare Top Ten
- Monkeys – probably the main reason we went to the Chapare, and in this we were not disappointed. On Day One we walked to a wildlife refuge called Parque Machia (http://www.intiwarayassi.org) just across the river from Villa Tunari where we were staying. The multiple aims of the refuge include rescuing animals that have been taken from the jungle and sold inappropriately as pets or kept in captivity and/or abused, and rehabilitating them so they can return to the rainforest, though this is not always possible. Case in point: the spider monkeys which have been socialized through contact with humans to the point that they probably have no hope of ever being rehabilitated because they love human contact so much. As we hiked up a trail mildly reminiscent of the hike to Pulpit (near Nelson) – not counting the obvious differences in vegetation – we looked hopefully for wildlife but didn’t see any. Realizing this was not a zoo and that wildlife sightings could not be guaranteed, we started to reconcile ourselves to the possibility that a great view might be all we’d get. Arriving at the mirador (look-out) our jaws suddenly dropped as we took in the sight of a half dozen other tourists who were either petting monkeys or cradling them in their laps! It wasn’t long before one of the monkeys clambered up onto Erik’s lap and threw herself down in a melodramatic fashion as if to say, “Pet me! Stroke me!” Another helped himself to someone’s water bottle, capably unscrewing the lid and drinking from it – with his feet. So gentle were they, and so habituated to humans, that we were able to stroke their long tails, the undersides of which feel just like the tough, smooth palms of their hands and feet. We were so thrilled – and incredulous – that we forgot about the humidity momentarily. On the way back down the trail, just as we were wondering where they kept the other animals (e.g., sloths, wild cats, and the Andean bear) we ran into a couple of 20-something British volunteers who were out taking the puma for a walk! Actually, the puma was taking them for a walk, as he does every day, for most of the day. At this particular moment he had chosen to take a nap right on the trail so we tourists had to detour around him. Just as we came to the bottom of the trail we spotted some capuchins, playfully jumping from tree to tree and hanging off of each other. In the following days we were treated to the sight and sounds of squirrel monkeys too, right from the rooftop of the place we were staying. They sounded exactly like they do in cartoons. Who would have guessed?
- Banana trees – For the kids, seeing banana trees was one more exciting first, and one that provided a fair bit of entertainment, since it is impossible not to think of penises when looking at a banana “tree”. (I say “tree” in quotation marks because they’re more perennials since you cut them down every year after the harvest and then they grow back.) But that phallic-looking part is actually the cover that protects the rows of flowers and peels back when they’re ready to bloom and be pollinated (or such is our understanding). It is the stems of the flowers that later swell up to become the bananas, which grow upward in semi-circles around the base of a major stem near the trunk.
- Grapefruit! The beginning of the citrus season meant we could finally find (and recognize) a safe, peelable fruit (other than banana) that both quenched our thirst and rectified (pardon the pun) the problems we were experiencing due to our dramatically decreased intake of fruits and vegetables since coming to Bolivia. We also tried – and liked – a fruit called chirimoya, which is green and scaly on the outside with very soft, white, creamy bits in the middle (like extra-large corn kernels) containing seeds similar to watermelon. Tastes a bit like vanilla pudding and also sometimes goes by the name ‘custard apple’. There are other fruits here we recognize, such as mango, but it’s not in season. Papaya is good and available, and at our homestay in Cochabamba we have also enjoyed tumbo juice and tuna – not the fish, but the Spanish word for prickly pear cactus. These fruits are often sold out of wheelbarrows on street corners in the cities, but the rather unhygienic conditions at these stalls have left us a bit uneasy about buying them. Photo: Quinn face-to-face with a totumbo fruit hanging on a tree.
- Butterflies – So many! So colourful! So varied! One of the most thrilling kinds to see is a large, metallic blue one, which might be the same kind we saw in the natural history museum in Cochabamba the week previous. (see photo) These very butterflies (‘mariposas’ in Spanish) are sold to tourists as souvenirs (pressed between two layers of glass and framed) in the city, and if you oooh and aaaaah over one but express concern to the vendor that perhaps these would be better left alive in the jungle, you will be reassured that there are MUCHAS of the same in the Chapare and that you really shouldn’t worry your little gringo head about it. The second photo here shows a type of hummingbird that lives in the Chapare. We didn’t see it (except at the museum) but just had to share it with you because its tail is so astonishing.
- Parque Nacional Carrasco – Hiked here with an American and three Swiss students from the same language school we attended in Cochabamba. It’s a huge park (600,000 hectares), astonishing in its biodiversity: 614 species of plants, 120 trees, 300 orchids, 800 birds, 70 amphibians, 17 fish, and 118 species of mammals. Among its more infamous inhabitants are several venomous snakes, including the one our guide proudly introduced as the most deadly snake in the world. Not to worry, though, he says, as they only come out after 4 pm and we will be done our hike by 3. Just stay with the group and don’t stray from the path. (We did not.) The species the park is most famous for is not a snake but a type of bird called a guacharo, which is sometimes referred to as a blind bird because it lives in dark caves (where it actually can see) – it would be blinded by daylight outside the cave. It takes its sorties into the forest at night. Large, with red eyes and an angry-sounding screech (like something out of a Harry Potter movie, I thought), it wasn’t the sort of bird I really wanted to get cozy with. It seemed to me that the guide led us deeper into the cave than was really necessary. Ditto for the bats in the other cave (though the kids don’t share this opinion). We left the national park the way we had entered: by way of a cable-car contraption across a tumultuous river, powered only by the strong arms of our guide who pulled that cable hand-over-hand all the way across.
- Parrots – aka flockers of squawkers. What a thrill to see these in the trees in the middle of town! We may also have seen parakeets; the tops of the trees are so far up it’s hard to tell.
- Swimming – Our hostel had an outdoor pool, and we also swam in a couple of cool, clean, clear-water creeks with natural pools called pozas. Picking our way over the round river rocks from one pool to another we felt an odd, or unlikely familiarity with our surroundings, as if we were on a canoe trip somewhere in Canada, as long as we didn’t look up at the trees.
- Sleeping in hammocks – More comfortable than we expected they’d be, these allowed us to sleep up on the top floor of the house where there were no walls and a faint breeze could sometimes be felt. We did have mosquito nets with the edges tucked all around us but we wonder what good it did… (see “bugs” on “Bottom Ten” list below).
- Riding on moto-taxis – These being the main form of public transportation in the small towns strung along the highway in the Chapare, we took them on a couple of occasions (Quinn and I on the back of one moto and Felix and Erik on the back of another). By the grins on their faces we inferred that the kids could get used to motorbike travel pretty easily.
- Surubi – One of the culinary specialties of the area, these fish are huge and their flesh is very tasty, especially when cooked up skillfully, as these were. A dinner of surubi – which comes with fried bananas, yuca (aka cassava or manioc) and rice – will set you back a full 30 Bs – twice as much as a meal of chicken or beef – but it was well worth the money (about $4.40 Cdn). For reasons we haven’t yet figured out, surubi is also the name of one of the types of vans used for public transportation in Cochabamba.
Chapare Bottom Ten
- Humidity – That’s one of those things about the Amazon that doesn’t go on postcards: this blessed humidity. Small indications of it are everywhere – like the salt that is served in bowls because it can’t be stored in shakers, and the Arrowroot-like cookies that bend in half instead of breaking, within half an hour of the package being opened. Not to mention that by the second day Jennie’s hair would have scared Medusa. It’s even worse than Toronto in July.
- Bad smells – dirty diesel exhaust, urine, substandard bathrooms, rotting garbage, mold/mustiness
- Stinky, mangy, nearly hairless dogs with open sores and parasites
- The fly-covered dead rat in the street in Chimore
- Garbage strewn everywhere
- Pounding headaches such as Jennie and Quinn had for the first two days of being back down near sea level.
- Noise – blaring TVs, blown-out speakers, transport trucks going by on highway at all hours and fans that scarcely cover the truck noise and bring scant relief to the sweaty (need we mention that A/C does not exist here?)
- Fluorescent tube lights – the main kind of lighting in the country, especially in poorer areas, these lights cast a very eerie glare over the plazas and squares (and in hostel rooms) at night.
- Taxi blockades – There appeared to be a turf war between the respective taxi companies of two highway towns (Shinahota & Chimore) that are 10 km apart and en route to wherever we wanted to go. At one point a taxi driver who had said he’d drive us to Parque Carrasco was confronted by a bunch of angry drivers from Shinahota wielding a large piece of wood with a couple hundred nails driven into it (points sticking upward) capable of quickly and easily puncturing all his tires if he proceeded to drive us to our destination. He capitulated and we switched cabs.
- Bugs! Initially we thought they weren’t too bad because we didn’t see many or even feel them biting, but by the second day, the evidence had started to show. Even though we wore long pants and shirts AND applied bug dope containing DEET when walking through the rainforest, by the time we returned to Cochabamba the kids looked worse than they did when they had chicken pox (when Q was 3 and Felix just a baby) – to the point of making us wonder if they actually did have chicken pox. One certain someone who shall remain nameless counted 14 bites on his private parts alone! A fellow traveler said the kids looked like they’d been eaten by bed bugs but we don’t think this is the case because bed bugs really hurt when they bite and these didn’t. The woman who hosted us for two nights at her house (owner of the language school who also has a place in the Chapare which she invited us to visit) said the bites were from little bugs that are in the water as well as the air and are very small. It was at her place that we think we got all the bites, so she’s probably right. To our knowledge, those little bugs do not carry any diseases that we need be concerned about, so it should be just another discomfort to put up with.
Back in Cochabamba today we all notice how much more attractive, affluent, and COMFORTABLE it seems compared to just one week ago. Perspective is relative, to be sure. (We are loving the cooler weather now!) That said, going to the Chapare was a great thing to have done for a few days and a great way to prepare for a future excursion that we may choose to take in a few weeks’ time, deeper into the Amazon in the north of the country. For now we are heading south and west, to Sucre for a week and then Potosi. All buses for Sucre are overnight buses (10 hours), so tonight we travel and tomorrow we arrive – at 6:00 am. – ready for a new unknown.