Boat Hitchhiking Into The Bolivian Amazon: Part One
Recently we found ourselves in a kind of a rut. Travel had started to drain on us and the whole “check out a new place every couple days” thing was just not as exciting s it had been. We were weighing a lot of different options for the next section of our trip, and we decided that what we really needed was to get further out there, away from the rest of the tourist crowds. In our guidebook there was mention of boat hitchhiking into the Bolivian Amazon . It told us what towns had ports but besides that, there was very little information. After searching the Internet and exhausting other guidebooks, we concluded that these river systems were, in fact “out there”, beyond the realms of modern society. So we set aside three weeks of our lives to go see what kinds of trouble we could get ourselves into.
The adventure started in Santa Cruz. From there we needed to go to a small port village called Puerto Villarroel, where, theoretically, we could ride up the Rio Ichilo to the city of Trinidad. Trinidad is a decent-sized city and easily reachable by bus, but we wanted to ride the river the whole way. After asking every bus agency in the Santa Cruz bus terminal, we learned that the way to Puerto Villarroel was something like this: Take a bus going to Cochabamba, get off at Villa Tunari, and from there catch a smaller bus to Puerto. Sounded easy enough. The problem was that we had slept in and missed the morning buses to Cochabamba and the next ones were night buses leaving between 5 and 9pm. Six hours to Villa Tunari put us there at 11pm if we took the 5pm bus, and then two hours to Puerto put as at a 1am arrival time. Or the 9pm bus supposedly put us at Puerto Villarroel at 5am (dawn). We thought about the other option of just spending another night in Santa Cruz, but we were ready to get this thing started. So we decided to start the adventure of right and risk getting to Villa Tunari at 3am, hoping they actually had a terminal or at least a safe spot to sit out of the rain if there weren’t night buses to Puerto (we assumed that there were not).
Our bus ended up leaving close to 10pm (one hour late) which we would have normally been mad about but this time it was a lucky break. I tried to stay awake to make sure we got off at the right place, but somehow I must have dozed off because we woke to the other passengers kicking our seats and yelling that this was our stop. (Lesson from the Samaipata mess: tell as many people as possible where you need to get off and they will help you!) So we got out in the dark and rain in Villa Tunari, no bus terminal or further transportation in sight. The bus driver said that we could catch a ride “here or there”, whatever that meant. Luckily there was a nice awning to shield the rain and we sat down on our backpacks to survey the situation. A friendly truck driver confirmed our suspicions that Villa Tunari was completely the wrong place and that we should have gotten off an hour early in Ivirgarzama, where the main highway intersets the road to Puerto Villarroel. “Good information we got as usual” we said as we checked the time: 2:30am. What is with always being early lately?????
The plan was to wait until sunrise, not draw attention to ourselves lest any creepers be about, and then it would be easy to catch a ride, since it was the main road between Bolivia’s two biggest cities. “I think the reason people give us such bad information,” said Carrie, “is because no one travels, especially to these places, and no one wants to tell us that they don’t know how to get somewhere. I wish they would just say ‘I don’t know!’” Eventually Carrie was able to take a nap on her pack, in true bum style, and I paced and paced feeling a mixture of fatigue, boredom, hunger, and stress. At first light I asked a taxi-looking van which way he was going and after some debate the driver agreed to take us to Ivirgazama for 40 Bolivianos, which was a great price but we were still mad at having to pay extra money because we listened to bad advice. The driver was friendly and I think happy for the extra money, though he couldn’t have made much profit because it was a long drive. “I’m a mechanic, not a taxi,” he said, laughing.
After an hour or so we were left off on the road to Puerto where there was a nice indigenous woman selling chicken, rice, and soup (breakfast?) for a cheap price. With full stomachs we felt ready to push onward and asked people how we could go about doing so. We were again given bad advice, twice, before finding ourselves walking 1km to the town plaza where there were supposedly rides to the end of the road. By this point we were starting to get strange glances at our white skin and large backpacks so with smiles on our faces we looked at each other, simultaneously realized that we had finally made it “off the grid.” We walked and asked more people and finally found a spot with shared taxis that traversed the final 25km to the end of the road. We jumped in one for 5 Bolivianos each. We passed thatch-roofed huts and fields of coca riding on a perfect new road in a car that somehow had the steering wheel and pedals switched from the right side to the left, but the gauges remained on the right. We soon came to a small village were left off where the road dead-ended into the Rio Ichilo. It was before 9am and we couldn’t have been more excited to get to the slow, sticky, and lazy village of Puerto Villarroel. Why were we here again?