Thursday, June 02, 2005

Bolivia, an adventure full of surprises: the flight from Cuzco and Santa Cruz


Time was running out of my hands, and combined with Bolivian social fight and inefficiency I could see how I miss Tim in our quest to explore the fabulous Noel-Kempff Mercado national park (NKMP for short, see also
Not taking any chances, I have bought a flight to Santa Cruz (where Tim awaited for me) and on the way landed in La paz (El Alto airport), looking forward for the chance to get into La paz and take my stuff (and my glasses) and get the hell out of there. Things were not as planned, as it is in Bolivia!

Tim finally sent me an email. He had some troubles connecting to his email server, and finally he managed to send me an email. Time was pressing, Tim said, and I had to be in Santa Cruz by Thursday afternoon so i could take a bus to San Ignacio, and from there take a one a week bus to La Macheta, a hut in the wilderness, on the way to the park. So, as things were really getting pressy, there was a need for speed! And, what can be more faster than a Boeing 727-200 airplane jet?
The next day, Monday, I went first thing on the morning to the travel agency in order to change my flight plans I have booked on Saturday morning: Instead of flying only to La paz, im gonna take another flight to Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, two towns east of La paz. That way, I could be in Santa Cruz at the same day, Tuesday, and have enough time to prepare to the upcoming excursion into the jungle.
At the office sat another agent, that one didn't know a single word in English, but luckily I have managed to squeeze some Spanish words and explain her that i need a ticket to Santa Cruz, ASAP!
Together we hopped on a taxi and drove to the center, were the Bolivian national airline company was staying (called LAB). In the airline office I managed to book a flight from Cuzco to La paz and following a waiting for seven hours, gonna take another flight to Santa Cruz with a landing in Cochabamba on the way. PERFECTO! That way, I could go to La paz and retrieve my stuff. I paid and was on my way to meet Chen in plaza Aramas and to have some lunch and hang around.
The following day, I took my already packed backpack and walked briskly to Aramas plaza to have a nice breakfast and then returned to the hostel, took y stuff and climbed a cab to the airport. There, I have checked in around 8:30 am and waited till boarding time. The ticket displayed a two hours time table, but in effect the steward announced that the flight time will be around 51 minutes. Puzzled, I leaned my head against the head rest while the plane rushed down the runway at 150 knot per hour. Quickly, the plane had leveled at the cruising flight altitude, and at that certain point I gripped that this is the best way to go go: Not only fast, this way you can enjoy the beauty of the Lake Titicaca entire region. Far off mountains snowy peaks peeked over the horizon at the southern western part of Peru (Arequipa area?), and all Sacred valley which is located at the Cuzco area was spread and laid out in green and yellow color criss-cross. The flight was short, thus the plane flew at a moderate flight level, and it was possible to enjoy the view which is usually constricted to mountain top panoramas. Not more than 35 min after take off, and I could see already the northern part of the Peruvian shores of Lake Titicaca and the floating Islands area. I have enjoyed this backward voyage, which I traveled through only half a week before on a bus! Seeing Puno, Isla del sol and Copacabana was an amazing experience, and enabled me to take some pictures, which hopefully will be updated on the site and would enable you all to enjoy this wonderful flight view. Quickly we passed Tiwanaku (which I didn´t see) and landed at the Bolivian international airport at the raging city of El Alto. After passing immigration and my passport being stamped, again, with a Bolivian stamp I went through the custom area, where I had my first surprise that day.
An official representative of the airport, which I didn`t know what was his job, asked me with his good English what are my intentions, and I replied non-nonchalantly that im going to La paz.
Oh no, he replied, you can not go to La paz. All roads are blocked. For your safety, I suggest that you stay here in the airport till your next flight leaves to Cochabamaba.
But I have to go back to La paz, i replied in a desperate voice, my stuff is there and I need them ASAP!
OK, he answered calmly, sit here and we will see what can we do.

Turns out, that Marcus, a 50 year old man, is in charge of all lost luggage. At the start we talked with the few taxi drivers that were at the airport entrance, but we understood that it is impossible to get in: the road to La paz is blocked, and it is necessary to pass the blockade on foot (more than a km walk) and then to take a taxi which waits with a bunch of others taxis on the other side of the blockade. I was willing to do that, only that there were protesters from all the Altiplano that were throwing stones at people trying to pass the blockade. I have got hitted by one stone already, there is no need to get hit by another one. Marcus offered that we call the hostel and ask them to bring the package to the airport. Good idea, as the protesters might be more violent toward tourists than to locals. And also, my package was small in comparison to my 15 kg backpack, and thus running with it at 4000 m was out of the question!
We went to his office and first called a hotel in La paz in order to have the number of the hostel. After that, he called and talked with one of the hostel workers, a woman called marta, a lovely nice woman. Turns out that La paz was in a mess, in it was hard to find a taxi that will take the ride to the airport. Damn! But, they will check later if they can catch a cab. The time was already 2 pm and the last time I could board my luggage was 6 pm, half an hour before departure. While waiting for their call, Marcus suggested an alternative plan: He will pick up the package early in the morning and will bring it to his office, before the protesters will block the road (as he done every day for the past month). Then he will board my package on the proximate flight to Santa Cruz as out of the over all cargo and all I will need to do is to retrieve it from the airport. I was amazed to hear such an offer, as it was of course unacceptable to do such a thing, from the company point of view (but it was a very humanitary to do, of course!).
I thanked him so much for his kindness several times, and finally invited him to lunch. Before that, we gave another ring to the hostel in order to inform them Marcus is coming to the hostel and that the package should be ready. Marta told me that she is ready to go to the airport right now, so I gave her the green light. Now, we should have wait and hope she will pass the blockades without any harm. After inspecting another flight landing in the airport, Marcus joined me and we ate at the Burger King post in the main terminal. Turns out, this was his second time to eat there, as this place was too expensive for him (around 3 USD for a burger, fries and coke). The first time was when it was Christmas, when all places were closed. We talked for over an hour about many things and issues, mainly, the Bolivia overall situation and the situation in Israel, comparing prices and life styles. He also felt that many Bolivians are acting foolishly and are not investing enough in their next generation, while preferring investing hundreds of USD on the grand poder event. Around 4 and half he had to go down to the office in the La paz, and we parted hugging and hoping Marta will arrive all well and with the package. If there will be any problem, he told me before leaving the terminal, I will take the package and ship it to Santa Cruz. I hugged him again hoping I will have the chance to invite him to another burger.
Around 5 and half, while I was reading a Dan Brown novel (a kind gift from Chen), I have noticed a familiar face standing at the entrance to the terminal. MARTA! I jumped off and left all my belongings at that bench and ran to the entrance. We hugged warmly and asked her if all is OK. She was excited to see me and told me all was fine. I paid for all expenses and left her a little tip. I also gave her at that moment the key of room number 8, as I mistakenly forgot in my pocket (which was a week and half when I left La paz to Copacabana). We hugged again and I promised that I will return to La paz. While I was packing my stuff later I decided that when I will be back at La paz (and I will, as my glasses are still in the optic shop) I would by her a little present or chocolate, as she really made something she didn´t had to do.
We boarded the plane at 6 pm and the plane took off well after the sunset, but the sight was amazing in any case. All El Alto was like a square puddle of gold mixed with Ezmeralda, spilling over the black cliffs into the La paz valley, which was like a stream of gold coming down from the deep blue-black mountains. Passing by Illamani was another moment of amazement, as we cruised approximately at the same height of the peak (around 20,000 feet), and even though darkness have already started surrounding us, the triple white peaks shined on and attracted the eyes of all passengers on the left wing. This flight went smoothly, stopping only for refueling and passengers exchange at Cochabamba, and after 30 min we took off, again, landing one hour later at the Viru-Viru airport at the tropical Santa Cruz. I took a bus to down town and from there walked for 20 min to the hostel Tim was staying, the Residencial Bolivar hostel.
At first, he wrote me that this is a bit expensive hostel (a bit? 60 Bolivians a night!!!) but it is worth it. As the night was progressing, I had not the time, patience and will to start to look for an alternative. I trusted Tim (and it was a right decision!) and finally buzzed the front door bell. Tim was not at the hostel but left me a note what room he stays. I left my baggage in the room ("we went to eat at Tex-mex – join us!" was the writing) but decided to skip dinner, as i had some cramps in my stomach). After seeing Men In Black, and taking a good shower, and I headed to the bed to sleep a bit. The double Tim (double meaning, of course) entered the room, followed by Roi, an Israeli that came from Brazil. We hugged and exchanged some of the things we were passing in the last week in the atmospheric courtyard. Tim was waiting for me in Santa Cruz in this place, and had only compliments about this hostel (and there was just behind them!). Tim Bragg, with dread-locks in his hair, is a very symphatic American guy that works as a fireman in the US and was on a voluntary work in Santa Cruz, helping the fire department of the city to be more efficient. Roi Shurnik was waiting for his girlfriend, Noa, that was in Tarija and tried to join him in Santa Cruz, but the road blocks couldn`t enable her to get to Santa Cruz. Finally, she decided to come by flight.
The following day, Wednesday, we woke up late and had together all of us had our breakfast, planning what to do before we take leave of civilization. With the bright sunlight it was possible to appreciate this nice hostel, full of tropic plantation, three independent Toucans ("Any of various tropical American birds of the family Ramphastidae, having brightly colored plumage and a very large bill and feeding mainly on small fruits", one green parrot and one duck. In short, a very cute bird, a very photogenic one. Im gonna post my pictures ones I develop them, so you can appreciate this bird beauty. There is no need to understand that these wildlife is the trademark and the attraction of this hostel, apart from the eat-as-much-as-you-can breakfast which includes fresh tropical fruits, juices, omelets, coffee and house-made jam. It is a fantastic breakfast!
After filling our bellies with these delicacies, me and Tim took off to the organization that is responsible for the national park, for a last minute debriefing. This organization, called Fundacion Amigos De La Naturaleza, or in short FAN, is located in the outskirts of Santa Cruz, behind a high white wall. Even though Tim was already here, it was hard to find this place, with not a single sign on the main road of it´s existence. As a lot of things in Bolivia, things are kept under the table.
In the office were one of FAN representatives and Christian Roth, a Swiss-Bolivian tour guide which is also an architect. Talking with them for one and half hour, we gripped that we can not enter the park this weekend as all the park rangers are fixing a bridge over one of the rivers (and why the hell you didn`t tell that to ole Tim that talked with you two days ago??). We tried all kind of arguments and plans, but finally, we had to give up as they were fierce. Come next week, they said. On our way back we met with Christian on his Yamaha motorbike and we had a long talk on the highway, waiting for the bus. Turns out, that Christian is the son of Hans Roth, a famous architect that was responsible for the restoration of the Jesuit circuit churches (see also: and while talking we had some ideas about the "real" Santa Cruz (which I will not dispense here) and also about other countries...It was an interesting chat, and while we went back on the bus, I and Tim started to think what are we gonna do for an additional week, while agreeing that Bolivia is indeed the country of adventures and surprises. We suddenly gripped that this is the main reason why we are so enjoying this country, even when things are going wrong or that shit happens all the time. It´s a no-boring land, we concluded with a smile. WE WERE HAPPY WITH IT!
Coming back to the hostel, we talked with Roi and tried to think what we gonna do, when two Israelis entered the court yard and asked bluntly if there is anyone who plans to explore the Noel-Kempff Mercado. We raised hour heads in silence, surprised and also happy. Sure thing, people. What`s on your mind? We asked them, and after two hours we (I, Tim, Avi and Yair) already had a plan how to explore this park and a time line for the following morning. Excellent!
We took off to a nice Cuban restaurant in town and after delighting over some real good Cuban dishes (Pork, Pork and Pork) we have stamped our presence on the well written walls and ceiling, as part of the tradition in the restaurant.
The following morning was opened with a lot of optimism, as we were hoping that Noa and Roi will also join us on our tour, as Noa heared about this park only the night she landed in the Hostel and wanted to sleep over it. Avi came to visit us and together we sat for an additional hour, figuring out the supplies and the equipment that we need for this excursion. We agreed to meet in the main plaza around 1:30 pm after we talk with FAN and check that we can actually do it that weekend (the FAN people pressed us to do it with a jeep, as we planned with Avi and Yair and not by our feet, as me and Tim planned originally). We hoped that the Jeep will help us convince them that we could do this with no park ranger available. Well, surprises. By the time we got the FAN people on the phone, we were already packed and ready to go. No, you can not go this weekend, and that´s final, they answered our questions politely, but sternly. No way around this blockade. Damn. We had to find Yair and Avi, as both of them must have already checked out of their hostel. We didn`t find them till we came to the square at 1:30, and told the news. What are we gonna do? They were still in a dilemma whether to go to Sucre and risk not coming back on time (Monday morning) or to hang around Santa Cruz. Me and Tim have decided to join Roi and Noa on their tour to Banana family, a self sufficient family that lives in the wilderness among the jungle trees and wild mountains in the Volcanes area. We plan to spend sometime there, hopefully going back to Santa Cruz on Monday and start our departure toward San Ignacio, and following final arrangements of a 4X4 Jeep, we will move further into the jungle, into the real adventure.

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