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30th May 2010
The Jesuits arrived in eastern Bolivia (Chiquitania) in 1691 aiming to convert, civilize and educate the indigenous people in a harmonious social environment. San Xavier was the first mission, followed by 10 others until the Jesuits were expelled from South America in 1767.
In a week we travelled a circuit of some 1000 kilometres by train, buses and taxis from Santa Cruz to visit 8 former Jesuit Missions with centuries old restored churches. The region has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site, not only for its churches, but also for the rich indigenous culture.
All the churches feature huge, artistically hewn wooden columns supporting exposed timber beams and wood or cane ceilings. The white washed adobe walls are covered inside and out with elaborate decoration, painted in ochre, yellow and black. Mirrors near ground level on the altars taught the heathens how to bow down to God. The churches all face beautiful plazas, the other 3 sides are lined with colonial buildings, their terracotta tiled roofs overhanging the sidewalks are supported by carved wooden columns. One block away the streets are dirt.
San José de Chiquitos was founded in 1698. Its beautifully restored church complex, the only one to be built in stone, consists of 4 buildings, taking up an entire city block. Nearby the church of Santiago de Chiquitos, 1754, bears images of the Santiago pilgrim. The mission of San Ignacio de Velasco was founded in 1748. San Miguel dates from 1721, San Rafael from1696. Santa Ana mission, although established in 1755, has a humble church which was built after the Jesuit expulsion of 1767. The Concepción mission was founded in1709 and San Xavier in 1691.
24th May 2010
Santa Cruz, in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia, is 1 hour from La Paz by plane and 23 hours by bus. We took the plane. There are tall white Mennonites strolling around the city, the men all dressed alike in overalls and straw hats, the women in the same coloured conservative dresses.
Near Samaipata, 120 kilometres away, is the mystical carved mountain top used by the Pre Incas 3000 years ago, and later the Incas, as a temple to the sun and moon. Samaipata is a nice little place so it is no surprise that many foreigners live there. In the nearby jungle are many lovely walks. Just out of town is the animal refuge El Refugio where sick and injured animals are cared for by volunteers.
Not far away in La Higuera, the Bolivian army captured and killed Che Guevara.
16th May 2010
Continuing our trip with Deep Rainforest, interrupted due to a roadblock at Caranavi, we travelled 6 hours north of La Paz on a nail biting bus ride to Teoponte, part of which could have been on the world´s second most dangerous road.
From there we boarded a long river boat powered by an outboard motor, expertly manouvered through the rapids by Herman and Camisas for a 3 day trip down the Rivers Kaka and Beni to Rurrenabaque in the Bolivian Amazon. Such a memorable trip it was, gliding with the current of the river, thick jungle of the Madidi National Park all around us.
We camped 2 nights on the river banks, went piraña fishing (Jeff was the only person to catch one) and had jungle walks with Ivan, our guide, opening up a space ahead with his machette and explaining the medicinal value of various plants. Carmén, the cook, was up well before dawn cooking up huge meals for 12 tourists and 4 crew.
Rurre, as the locals call it, is a real jungle outpost where canoes arrive at the market on the river bank. The amazing sunsets are best watched from an open air thatched roof bar beside the river.
We flew back to La Paz on an Amaszonas Airline 19 seat Metro. What an experience – taking off from the rough grass airstrip and flying through a gap in the snow covered mountains to land at one of the world’s highest airports .
11th May 2010
There are many trekking opportunities from La Paz and many adventure companies. We chose a trek for 2 people with Zig Zag Eco Tours starting in the peaceful mountainside town of Sorata (2700 metres), 3 hours north of La Paz. The bus makes its way down a spectacular valley dotted with communities and their colourful fields of maize.
Together with our experienced guide Ivan and great cook Syrle, we began the punishing climb up to the sacred Lake Chillata at 4200 metres where we camped for 2 nights beside the lake. The snow capped mountains were reflected in the still water, the fog rolled in and out. Our packs and the rest of the gear went up ahead on 2 mules led by Don Vicente.
The next morning we set off in the mist to climb up to Laguna Glacial at 5038 metres. Syrle had made a delicious picnic lunch which we enjoyed beside a stream below the glacier at 4800 metres with views down to Lake Titicaca. Lack of time and fitness as well as the high altitude prevented us from going all the way to the lake but we were more than happy to turn around where we did.
Our final day was the steep descent back down into the cloud filled valley. The weather was perfect, the Illampu mountains clearly visible behind us as we trekked towards Sorata.
06th May 2010
From La Cumbre at almost 5000 metres in the Cordillera Real north of La Paz, we began the Choro trek organized by Deep Rainforest. We set off down a 900 year old stone footpath covered in ice which soon melted as we descended steeply. The path was the main route between the Altiplano and the Amazon region and is still used and maintained by the small communities living along the way who travel up and down on foot.
The first day, led by our capable guide Guido, we descended 2000 metres. Our muscles felt it the next day descending another 800 metres before a steep climb after which the path levelled off to follow around the mountainside hundreds of metres above the valley.
The treeless slopes and grazing llamas gave way to forests of trees covered in old man’s beard, supporting orchids and bromeliads getting moisture from mist off the waterfalls and clouds filling the valleys. We camped 2 nights perched on the side of mountains with spectacular views across the valleys.
We set off at dawn on our last day, the rainforest dark and dripping moisture, the path overgrown in places. We came across a little bent up old Japanese man, Tamiji Hanamura, 89 years old who had been living by himself in this isolated spot for more than 50 years. He loves to talk to visitors and show them his many post cards from different parts of the world and shares his lovely garden with campers.
Our trek ended in Chairo at 1300 metres from where we took a scary taxi ride up to the hill town of Coroico where we spent the night before returning to La Paz. Between La Paz and Coroico used to be the “world’s most dangerous road”. Now that there is a new road for traffic, tour operators offer “the world’s most dangerous bike ride” on the old one.
01st May 2010
From Cochabamba our bus struggled up towards La Paz, reaching the Altiplano at over 4400 metres, passing lone farms where people were cutting wheat by hand and small pueblos where busy markets were in progress.
The first sighting of La Paz city (3660 metres) spilling down both sides of a steep canyon and surrounded by snow capped peaks is always breathtaking (the altitude is breathtaking as well). Once in the city there is hustle and bustle everywhere. Everything is for sale in the streets even dried llama fetuses.
The Aymara women (from around Lake Titicaca) wear bowler hats, brightly coloured full skirts and intricate shawls (mantas). Years ago, a local English businessman received a shipment of mens bowler hats by mistake. He managed to convince the Bolivian women to wear them and the new fashion took off.
The shoe shine men hide their identity behind ski masks and baseball caps to avoid social stigma.
Not far from La Paz are the ruins of Tiwanaku, a pre Inca ceremonial centre, and the most important archaeological site in Bolivia. It is slowly being excavated and partly restored.