Dirtbag Backpacker Memories from Bolivia
In 2011-2012 Zach and I traveled through South and Central America for seven months straight, covering 10 countries. We hoped to last longer and see even more but our budget was tiny and it being our first grand backpacking trip we had a lot to learn.
This was a great time to travel South America because it was a few years before cell phone data and wifi was available everywhere worldwide. We used the guidebook “South America on a Shoestring” like a Bible and only occasionally checked email and Facebook at internet cafes or splurged on a hostel with Wifi.
We didn’t have funds to be constantly doing touristy activities, but we had plenty of time, so our adventures had to become quite creative. After finishing the obligatory and incredible salt flats tour in Bolivia, we needed a new direction. The guidebook vaguely mentioned the possibility of catching a boat ride, hitchhiker style, on the Rio Ichilo from central Bolivia all the way to the border with Brazil. This sounded fascinating! A real Heart of Darkness-style jungle adventure is what we imagined, plus the opportunity to cross into Brazil just for a day and add another country to our list! So off we went to make this happen.
Night buses were the norm in South America; I’m not sure why. We embraced it because every time we took a night bus it saved us on having to pay for a night of accommodation. However to get to this river-head town in the middle of nowhere we only had to ride for a few hours, about half the night. So suddenly we found ourselves on the side of the road at what was essentially a Bolivian truck stop with nothing open, no one awake, and no signs of life, around 1am. In my memory there were not even any dogs barking; it was eerily quiet. It was not a dangerous situation, just inconvenient. If I remember correctly we had to catch some other, smaller bus from there which wouldn’t come by until morning. So what else could we do but post up against the wall of some roadside shuttered business and try to catch a few zzzs? I laid on top of my giant backpack like it was both a bed and a pillow and patiently waited for the hours to pass. THIS is why I tell everyone to travel while they’re young! Because now that I am in my 30s I am not willing to sleep on my backpack on the side of the road in Bolivia. Or anywhere! However, it’s a funny memory to look back on and I’m glad it happened. It was character building.
The next day we sleepily made the next bus to Puerto Villoreal, this tiny little port village at the edge of the Amazon jungle. There was nothing going on in this sleepy town and no other white people. We congratulated ourselves on making it far off the standard traveler trail! At the river’s edge, a dilapidated wooden shack boasting a sign for “Tourist Information” was abandoned except for stray dogs lying in the shade. With no further instructions than “try to hitchhike on a riverboat”, we started asking around. No luck the first day so we checked into the lone hotel to actually get a good night’s sleep. The next day we found a boat captain willing to take us for a fair price. The journey to Brazil would take up to a week on the river. “Woohoo, vamanos!” We thought. But concepts of time and urgency are different in the global south. Our limited Spanish also played a part in miscommunication. The boat crew that agreed to take us kept acting like they would be ready to go “pronto” but it took a couple more days. We spent the time waiting, sitting outside the hotel, and drinking nasty sugar cane liquor to quell our boredom. Waiting, bored, in order to get on a slow boat and be more bored.
Eventually we finally left! We paid the captain just enough for a space to pitch our tent on the upper deck of his riverboat, with an amazing view of where we were headed. It was a commercial vessel, making the trip for some reason I can’t specifically recall. Motoring off into the jungle, we were thrilled to have succeeded in finding this new mode of transportation and to be far off the beaten tourist trail. The river was calm and slow, the noises of the jungle on either side enthralling. It seemed all romantic at first. Then we made our first stop to pick up goods. The boat slowed and pulled to a stop at the riverbank. Canoes piled so full with bananas I was surprised they could float pulled up. And the giant mosquitoes swarmed us. “Ahhhhhhh, get in the tent!” We rushed to zip ourselves in after being attacked. For as long as the boat stayed stopped, the mosquitoes would swarm our tent and feast on any human outside. The Bolivians were used to it, one hand constantly swinging a towel in swatting motions. Our gringo skin reacted horribly to these giant mosquitos, but sitting inside the tent was like sitting in a sauna involuntarily. Once the boat would get moving again, the breeze brought sweet relief and we could get out of the tent. This cycle began to repeat itself constantly, and the longer we would be stopped for (sometimes several hours) the more torturous the tent sweat sessions became. For several days, we tried to keep ourselves entertained with reading, journaling, cooking simple meals on our camp stove, and a single bottle of rum we had to ration for our alcoholic selves. But the jungle madness was setting in.
After three or four days, we were bored of the view and questioning our life decisions. When the midpoint of the trip and the opportunity to bail came, we took it. “Fuck the jungle!” We thought, as we lugged our stuff off the boat and plodded towards Trinidad, the biggest “city” in the Bolivian Amazon. Brazil would have to wait for another trip. Riverboat hitchhiking was not all it was cracked up to be. Next we had to find a way to get ourselves out of this so-far-from-anywhere place without taking another boat…..
You can read the original, longer version of the story here.
I wrote about this again because it’s interesting to reminisce about old travel experiences with my current understanding of how these journeys shaped me. This story is an example of what I mean when I say, “Really travel…get OUT there.” Because in today’s digital world it’s becoming more and more difficult to brush up against the unknown. Some might say this journey failed. I look back on it and see two adventurous, somewhat-naive backpackers willing to try something new, willing to venture into the unknown. Sure, it wasn’t comfortable or as fun as we expected, but the memory sticks in my brain more than many of the more conventional travel experiences. Please let me know if you enjoyed this story and would like me to write more of them!