Bolivia 6 – La Paz to Santa Cruz and the Eastern Lowlands to the border with Brazil.

5th April – We begin our journey towards Santa Cruz and Bolivia’s eastern lowlands and then on to the border with Brazil.

Mount Illumani’s snow covered  peaks are looking particularly majestic framed against a clear, blue sky as we climb over the rim of the mountains, finally leaving La Paz and entering the dust and congestion of El Alto high on the plateau.  Farming eventually takes over, the hillsides covered in a patchwork of fields.  The air is fresher and cooler and this landscape continues until Caracollo, where we are soon at 4500m with rugged mountains plunging down into the valleys.

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We slowly make our descent into Cochabamba, returning to Casa Campestre for camping, where we are greeted again by our 3 legged dog friend and his other canine companions of various shapes and sizes.

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Lovely temperature here and so nice to be at a much lower altitude.  The flowering shrubs are beautiful and such vibrant colours.

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Our Mintex brake pads sent by Famous 4 (instead of genuine LR as requested), have been living up to their reputation and squealing like mad.  If they have not bedded in after doing 320km, they are certainly not likely to now.  We end up buying new ones from a LR mechanic in Cala Cala, just before the centre of Cochabamba.

A guy who comes over to admire our vehicle and conversion and to enquire about our travels, gives us numerous blessings for our journey.  He could not believe that we were traveling without air conditioning – a necessity he believed, for shutting windows against the sun, dust and insects….we were blessed many more times for the lack of this before he departed.

We have a long power cut in the evening and the girl from reception arrives with a torch, offering us some candles.  A kind thought but a bit of fire hazard with our roof tent and in such a small space!

No traffic is allowed on the roads here this Sunday between 9am. and 5pm.  There are two of these traffic free days a year – one National and the other local.  It was so peaceful without traffic noise and the fumes, everyone either walking or on bicycles.  We will therefore stay another day!

8th April – We take the old road toward Santa Cruz past Laguna Angostura, following a fertile farming valley up through the hills on the edge of the Cordillera Oriental.  Clouds and mist hang low and we have some rain.

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A little boy is sitting at the side of the road with two large sacks of onions to sell….we wonder how long he will have to sit there.  Women squat by the rivers with their washing, their colourful clothes decorating bushes and the river banks.  We pass the cobbled road that turns south to Sucre  and we are now on untravelled road.  Sections of this are in a pretty poor state.  Now that there is a new road to Santa Cruz further north, perhaps this one will not get further maintenance.  The tarmac finishes and we are on a rough and very dusty dirt track, clouds of choking yellow dust being thrown out from passing vehicles and from those in front.

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Being blessed many times, does not help us when windows have to be closed and there is no air conditioning to turn on!

We are soon enveloped in a thick mist and fog at just over 3000m and can see nothing to our right except for a rainbow disappearing down to the valley somewhere below.

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And then just as soon as we are in the mist, we are out of it……the sun shining on the patchwork of fields climbing up the mountains.

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There has obviously been heavy rain here and the road is now a sea of slippery mud. Concentrating on this and the lorries, we don’t recognise a wooden shed at the side as being a peage, until a rope tied with rags is suddenly pulled up in front of us!  15 peso for our mud ‘road’ but in another 47km the guy assures us we will have tarmac!  Everywhere is incredibly green, the rock faces beside us dripping with mosses and ferns but even at just over 2000m the mist is so thick, it’s turning daylight into dusk.

As we descend to Comarapa, 130km of dirt road ends and we have the tarmac we were promised.  We pass the sign for Samaipata and see the lights down below us in the valley….but strangely, it never materialises.  There have been many earth landslides at the sides of the road, bringing down rocks, boulders and even trees.  We cannot understand how we could have missed a turning but maybe we were too busy watching out for the donkeys, horses, sheep, cattle and even pigs once, that we pass, either standing or laying down at the edges of the road….a real hazard in the fading light!  The cows in particular, don’t seem a bit interested in moving from the middle of the road.  Samaipata remains a mystery, but we are not turning back and continue with the lorries on the road to Santa Cruz.  We pass a well-lit garage amongst the endless suburbs and ask permission to park for the night at the side.  The guard comes across and asks for 10 peso for the parking, they don’t have a key to the toilets and the music blaring out across the forecourt is apparently set at a certain volume which can’t be changed!  This is all fine by us however, as we have done almost 14 hours driving and have had enough for the day…..I don’t think the music, however loud, will keep us awake tonight!

9th April – The guard knocks on our window soon after 6am. to tell us we have to leave.  We park around the side of the Hiper Maxi to have breakfast and then find a jet wash.  This latter place is an incredible conveyor belt of vehicles, with many guys working non stop either washing, polishing, hoovering or cleaning the interiors.  Moby once again attracts a lot of attention from the locals.  We leave spanking clean and shiny after nearly an hours work and for only 50 peso……£5!!  Our next mission is to find ‘Steel’ – Santa Cruz, that specialises in Land Rovers.  Bill is able to get an oil seal, air filter and even a rear door lock which had gone in the very early days of our trip.  Very helpful people and they presented us with a very nice LR mug with our purchases!

Our way point takes us south of the city centre, to the smaller El Trompillo airport and the Pilots Club, which allows parking for travellers in their large, shady parking area.

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A group of pilots are sitting having drinks and Rodrigo is beckoned to help with our enquiries, as he speaks excellent English.  The man  in charge behind the bar, welcomes us free of charge apart from drinks, food and the electricity for a hot shower.  We have a very interesting conversation with Rodrigo who flies planes within Bolivia and he kindly gives us his phone number and email in case we encounter any problems during the rest of our stay in Bolivia. In fact everyone here is very helpful and our chicken sandwich and papas frittas that we order from the restaurant, is very good!

10th April – We have a strange feeling that there are no hot showers as we are led across the back yard behind the kitchen to a wash house, obviously the ‘mens’, as it is full of shoes, trousers, shirts and long-lohns and only one tap, so yes, it is a cold shower but it does wash off the dust, fumes and heat from the day before.

Bill fits the rear door lock, not a 5min. job of course, as nothing lines up when fitting a new lock to an old Land Rover, where the door has probably dropped slightly over the years.  Many pilots arrive for lunch and judging by the planes that are taking off almost next door, El Trompillo is a busy little airport dealing with many smaller, private and executive type planes, although occasionally, a bigger one can be heard revving up it’s engines and seen taking to the sky.

We catch a taxi up to the main plaza – 24 de Septiembre and visit the Cathedral there with twin bell towers and built on the site of an original church, dating back to the early 17th century.

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Santa Cruz has grown to become Bolivia’s second biggest city but because most of it is so new, it does not have the colonial charm that other cities such as Sucre possess.  Our walk back, includes a stop at the small Manzano Uno gallery, that is exhibiting some photographic work.

11th April – A cloudy, sticky and very windy day as we leave for Biocentre Guembe on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, where we understand from our book and other travellers, that there is camping, plus an interesting collection of butterflies, birds, reptiles and a few mammals to look at in a tranquil, green park area.  Not easy to find, tucked away on unmade roads, but when we do arrive, we are told that camping is no longer available here.  The cabanas are very expensive, so we leave and take the road for San Jose de Chiquitos.

We stop for diesel but they won’t serve us as we have foreign number plates.  However, we are allowed to fill our tank by using our spare fuel container, which we fill 6 times at more or less the local price!

As we leave Santa Cruz behind, we enter a green farming area with vast cattle ranches, reminding us of the eastern side of Argentina and we wonder if the steaks are just as  good!

At Pailon we are picked out for a police check and are called into the chief’s office, who fortunately speaks reasonable English.  He scrutinises all our papers extremely thoroughly and seriously questions why our vehicle is in my name but Bill is driving.  When he is satisfied by this, he asks for our International driving licences  and tells us we should have a Bolivian stamp on these which we have certainly never heard of.  He then tells us that we have committed a serious offence by handing over a ‘copy’ driving licence, which we keep in case the original should get lost.  We explain that this was handed over for quickness, as all our original documents are locked away and we had been stopped in the road, with a line of traffic behind us.   All our original documents are now there in front of him but he is not happy and demands a $100 fine, which we tell him we do not have, as we are soon leaving Bolivia. Our offence has now risen to Interpol level and Bill is told he will have to go to Interpol.  We tell him that if he is not happy with our explanation and all our correct documents, then we will have to phone our Embassy.  A few minutes later, he suddenly waves us out of his office and we go before he changes his mind!

We spend the night on another garage forecourt with the truckers.

What a day!  Who says over-landing is always a bundle of fun!

12th – 14th April – It rains hard in the night.  The truck drivers all leave between 6 and 7 a.m. running their engines for ages before leaving and filling our tent with fumes.  The toilet in the garage is disgusting this morning. It is still windy, overcast and very humid.

Our route through the eastern lowlands follows the railway line that runs for approx. 680km from Santa Cruz to Puerto Quijarro near the border with Brazil.

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It is an endless expanse of huge cattle ranches and agricultural development.  The white, Indian hump-back cow is popular here because we are told, they adapt to the climate well and need less attention, as for some reason they do not attract a biting, blood-sucking insect.

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Tangles of trees, scrub and swamp line the straight road, interspersed with long stretches of dirt road leading to the farms, owned not only by Bolivians, but also Brazilians, Chileans and settlers from the large Mennonite colonies.

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At San Jose de Chiquitos, we visit the well preserved Jesuit Mission Church overlooking the main plaza.  It is the only mission church in this area built of stone.

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We have no idea where we are going to stay tonight, but the idea of another night at a garage does not appeal, as after the rain, the dirt roads here are full of mud and puddles, made worse by diggers laying sewage pipes.  We see a sign for Villa de Chiqutana which includes a picture of a camper van….. perhaps we are in luck!  We ask directions a number of times amongst the maze of dirt roads, many with diversions due to the pipe laying.  What an amazing find!  Situated on the edge of town, we find this little bit of paradise owned by Jerome Maurice from France.  A beautifully designed and spotless hotel, with a very large garden and wonderful views.  Jerome welcomes travellers to park on an area of grass and provides all facilities.  The food in the restaurant is also excellent.

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Prior to settling in Bolivia, Jerome made a 3 year trip around the world with his wife…….both on motor scooters!  Amongst the interesting selection of books on the shelf to browse through, we discover his own book – ‘Le Monde en Scooters’, plus another by his brother Fabien – ‘Terre d’Enveil’, an account of his travels with his wife and two small children, mostly by bicycles pulling buggies.  Both books I’m sure, would be fascinating reading, but doubt whether they have been translated.  Jerome also has a fantastic knowledge of the local area and gave us a lot of information before we left.

15th April – Leaving San Jose, we have to fill up our tank with diesel using our spare container once more, after being asked to go around the back of the garage away from the camera on the forecourt!

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We  take the paved road for Robore but plan to stop at Chochis first.  A large herd of cattle are being driven along the sides of the road by two guys on horseback.  I can’t help noticing how clean these white cattle are!

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We also pass a wonderful example of a Toborochi tree – the national emblem for Santa Cruz.  This tree has a very unusual shape and bark and is covered in pink blossom when in flower.

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More pictures of one of these trees seen in the main plaza of San Jose, shows its unusual bark…….not a tree to climb!

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The road to Chochis now passes through a landscape of thick forest and craggy outcrops.

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At Chochis we visit a piece of paradise – The Sanctuerio, situated in beautiful gardens at the foot of an enormous, red rock monolith.

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After driving up a steep, cobbled road, we find it deserted but the door to the church is open.  This massive, single door, elaborately carved on both sides, pivots in the centre.

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These incredible wood carvings, of which there are many, have been done by a local man –  Mariano de la Torre.

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A covered walkway with carved pillars takes you to a shrine set in the rocks……….

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………followed by a steep, winding path that leads to a solitary rock, on the top of which is a sculpture of a man facing an incredible view.

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Higher still, the path continues toward the base of the monolith providing stunning views at every turn.

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This Sanctuary is such a peaceful and relaxing place, but set amongst the most dramatic scenery.  Not a place to be missed!

Shortly after leaving Chochis, we are pulled over again by the policia at another check post.  Their faces spell trouble and yes, they want money again but we keep smiling, show them our map of all the places that we have visited in Bolivia without being asked for money, and reluctantly they wave us on.

We stop at Agua Calientes for camping and to enjoy the thermal waters of the lake there.  Camping Miraflores (our first choice) is having  a new toilet block built, so we go almost next door to Camping Hervores.  A very nice location but toilets and showers (cold) are very basic.  A large group of Mennonites from a colony near Santa Cruz, are also here for a holiday and have set up a number of tents, their covered wagons pulled by tractors  parked nearby.  It took them 9 hours to arrive here!

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16th April – We have an interesting chat with one of the older Mennonite men who speaks English, having been brought up in Canada.  He and his wife have been farming in Bolivia for 24 years now, mainly growing soya beans and their children also have farms within the same colony.

We test the thermal water of the lake, which is lovely and warm and no more than chest deep. Small bubbles make continuous ripples as they reach the surface, whilst larger areas on the sandy floor, bubble and gurgle.  The clear water is full of tiny fish……

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……..providing a feast for the herons and other wading birds.

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Even the dogs enjoy warming their toes!

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17th April – We should arrive at the border with Brazil today.  Flat, flat land of scrub and forest and a straight, paved road ahead.  We stop at El Carmen for bread, a small sleepy town in this green landscape, the tree next to the shop is loaded with oranges.  We have lost all the rocky outcrops and the nearer we get to the border, the swamp lands of the Bolivian Pantanal take over.

As we near the border however, the forested hills return and we arrive at Puerto Quijarro, the last station in Bolivia for the train.

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