Monthly Archives: June 2007

Still Looking for Trekkers

June 12, 2007
Day 622

I didn't want to head right back to La Paz so I decided to rest a day in hopes of finding some trekking partners. It was a good thing, too, because I was feeling pretty sore after yesterday's extra-long walk. Sorata is surrounded by beautiful scenery, but unfortunately there's nothing for tourists to do here other than trekking.

My hotel is located near a big cross at the top of a hill. All day people kept coming up to it and looking out at the valley below. I assumed they were praying, but then I found out that three guys robbed the only Internet cafe in town and pushed their getaway car off the cliff in a thoughtless attempt to conceal it. So that explains both why they people were looking at the valley near the cross and why there was no Internet in town.

I was about to give up on the whole trekking idea at the end of the day when a couple of buses came into town and delivered three people who wanted to do a four-day trek in the area: Gil and Asaf from Israel, and David from Switzerland. None of them wanted to carry their own gear, but the price of pack animals was basically included with the price of a guide, and the thought of not carrying much for once did sound appealing. The grand total for our four-day trek including a guide, food, and two mules to carry our stuff came out to a grand total of $21 each, so I think I can handle it.

The timing was late, so we won't be able to buy food until tomorrow morning, but everything else is all set for the trek.

San Pedro Cave

June 11, 2007
Day 621

Picture of cave.

The lake inside of Gruta de San Pedro.

I would like to do a four-day trek from Sorata, and I started looking for people to go with as soon as I got here. This has been difficult because the few tourists who are here just want to relax for a few days. For some reason, Sorata still hasn't made it onto the tourist radar screen. I did leave a note on the guide association's bulletin board, so maybe I'll still be able to find some people to go with.

In the meantime, I decided to do a day-walk to Gruta San Pedro, a cave near the town of San Pedro, about a three-hour walk from Sorata. The walk went past some impressive scenery similar to what could be found in Nevada (except for the big mountain in the background).

The cave itself had a narrow entrance, but soon opened into a huge room, which was lit with fluorescent bulbs. A guide led three Chileans and myself to the back of the cave, where there was a small lake. People used to go diving there to look for gold until a few years ago when someone drowned. There were a couple of paddle boats in the water available for an extra fee, but I declined and walked around the water.

I decided to walk back to Sorata on the treacherous narrow path that led along a cliff rather than walk down the same boring jeep track. Some kids told me they were going to Sorata too and led me all the way down to the river. Then they started walking the wrong way. I told them Sorata was the other way and they figured out that they actually lived in a different Sorata than the one I was going to. I had to go all the way up to the top of the hill and ended up walking almost twice as far as I would have on the jeep track. Who had the bright idea of naming two towns so close together the same thing?

The photo album for this entry is here.

Minibus to Sorata

June 10, 2007
Day 620

Picture of Sorata.

Sorata, Bolivia.

I jumped on a bus to Sorata today. Actually, it was just a van that seated about fifteen people. When the bus left, all of the seats were filled, but the driver felt he could still do more, so we proceeded to pick up more passengers, who had to stand in the doorwell and sit on the roof. I got the luxury of not being able to lean back because one of the standers had half his body on my seat back. And this was the best ride my $1.75 would buy.

The journey first went to El Alto, in the altiplano far above La Paz. There must have been a market or festival of some sort that day because the streets were horrendously chaotic. When we finally got to the outskirts of the city, we were free to drive through the rest of the relatively unpopulated region. There were a few towns along the main road and some villages in the hills where life hasn't changed much in the last 500 years. The strangest thing is when someone gets off the bus in the middle of nowhere and starts walking toward nothing. This happens at least every half hour on this type of bus ride.

We drove along the length of the Cordillera Real, the mountain range near La Paz, until we passed Illampu, at which point we began our long descent to the valley below. The road down was modern with some parts having pavement, “Do Not Pass" signs (although our driver ignored them), and yes, even a few guardrails. The majority of the road had none of these, however, so the drive was pretty scary.

Eventually we arrived in Sorata, at an altitude of 2700 meters. The vegetation had gone from nothing but some grass to tropical with palm trees in the central plaza, hills covered with forests, and lots of green pastures. The area proved quite scenic, and I have been assured that there is a lot to do around here.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Altitude Adjustments

June 5-9, 2007
Day 615-619

Going up to high altitude is not an easy thing for me. I feel tired, lethargic, malaise, and can't walk up five stairs without breathing heavily. Luckily this only lasts a few days, and now I think I'm back to normal. I'm planning to do some trekking in the area, so getting acclimated is vital. The good thing is that all that is needed to acclimate is time, something I have plenty of.

Jamie had to go to Cuzco to continue his trip, but before he left, we got together with some of his Bolivian friends he met on the Death Road earlier this year. We drove out to the countryside for a barbecue. It was strange driving past mansions, shopping malls, and Burger Kings on the way. It's a side of Bolivia I hadn't seen before. The landscape was like the Nevada desert with huge red and yellow rock pillars jutting out from the rolling hills of the area. It was a fantastic region to visit. Too bad I didn't know I was going there or I would've brought my camera.

Riding the Altiplano

June 4, 2007
Day 614

I took a minibus from Villa Tunari to Cochabamba. It was the first vehicle I had been in for a month other than one night when a bunch of us took a bus to a neighboring town for Chinese food. I found it difficult to leave town after having been there for so long.

Cochabamba is at the base of the altiplano at about 2500 meters. I stayed there for a day to break up my trip to La Paz and to acclimate myself a bit more slowly to the altitude. The city claims to have a climate of eternal spring, and the weather while I was there lived up to that reputation: Warm without a cloud in the sky. I met up with a guy named Jamie, who was working with a puma named Sonko in Villa Tunari. We are going to travel to La Paz together.

Cochabamba Calls

June 2 - June 3, 2007
Day 612-613

I took a minibus from Villa Tunari to Cochabamba. It was the first vehicle I had been in for a month other than one night when a bunch of us took a bus to a neighboring town for Chinese food. I found it difficult to leave town after having been there for so long.

Cochabamba is at the base of the altiplano at about 2500 meters. I stayed there for a day to break up my trip to La Paz and to acclimate myself a bit more slowly to the altitude. The city claims to have a climate of eternal spring, and the weather while I was there lived up to that reputation: Warm without a cloud in the sky. I met up with a guy named Jamie, who was working with a puma named Sonko in Villa Tunari. We are going to travel to La Paz together.

Last Week With Simba

May 25 - June 1, 2007
Day 604-611

Picture of Simba.

Alvaro, Simba, and I at the beach.

Simba must have known that I was going to be leaving soon because he got quite jumpy in my last week at the park. It seemed like every time he had any kind of positional advantage on me he attacked. On top of that, he got smarter and sneakier in the end. Once after having a rest while tied to a tree, he started walking around, which usually means he's ready to go. Except this time, he just seemed to be testing how far the rope would reach because when he couldn't walk any further, he went back to his resting spot. Then instead of laying down, he crouched in his usual attack stance. He must have known that neither Nick nor I would dare entering his range when he was in that position, because he closed his eyes and turned his head as if to say, "It's OK guys, I'm just sleeping. You can come near me and I won't attack you." Yeah right. Another time when we put him on the long metal runner to go down a hill, he instantly ran halfway down and hid in the trees. He knew that as soon as we came looking for him, he'd be able to jump from his hiding spot and easily attack us. Instead, we stayed put and lied to him: "We see you Simba, come out of there." We actually had no idea where he was at the time. Eventually he tired of his game, emerged from the trees, and walked to us like a nice little puma.

One of his attacks was particularly bad. My shoe came untied at the top of a tall, steep hill. I figured if I didn't tie it right away I'd fall face-first down the hill. Simba was ahead of me halfway down the hill when I squatted down to tie my shoe. As soon as he saw that I was near the ground, he came charging at me, bit me hard in the thigh, and wrapped his claws around my arms. I wrestled with him for a few minutes and tried to get Nick to take his short leash so I could get away from him, but the rope was wrapped several times around my leg. I got his mouth away from me, but his claws kept digging in. Finally I was able to stick my leg straight up so Nick could unravel the rope. In the end my arms were good and bloody, but I couldn't get mad because I knew that Simba was just playing. Whenever he sharpens his claws on a tree, he does to the bark what the Swedish Chef does to lettuce, so I'm sure he could have done a lot worse to me if he wanted.

Picture of Simba.

Simba smelling another cat's urine.

Several of the other volunteers this last week haven't been as lucky as me. About four people sprained their ankles while walking their pumas and were put out of commission. One guy got bitten by something on his leg and it got infected so badly it produced a baseball-sized puss pocket and he was in too much pain to walk. Then Li Shu, the park's biggest puma, decided to test a new volunteer and attacked him so hard he broke his arm. I was fortunate to walk away from the park with only a few bumps, bruises, bites, and scratches.

I began training a Spaniard named Alvaro to take over for me a few days before I left. He's the most interesting guy I've met in months. A few years ago he got married for one month. He got divorced but liked his wedding ring too much to take it off. Then he was living with a different girlfriend for several years and decided on a whim to quit everything and go traveling. Two weeks later, he was on a plane to South America. Now he wants to travel for six months, but he only has $3000. That's easily possible in Bolivia, but pushing it in the rest of the continent. His main way of saving money is by skipping meals. We'll see how long that lasts. The really strange thing is that he's afraid of getting robbed, but he doesn't have a camera or anything else expensive to rob, and he has long hair, a big beard, a collection of Black Sabbath shirts, and bears an uncanny resemblance to Charles Manson. If I were a robber searching for a victim, he'd be the last person I'd choose.

Picture of Alvaro.

Alvaro shows off his skills on the saw.

Working with Simba was tough going for poor old Alvaro. On his first day, we took Simba to the beach again and he got completely worn out. Then I told him that we only had seen about 20% of Simba's trails and he almost fell over. Later we did Simba's long trail, and I gave Alvaro the rope for the first time at the end where it was relatively easy. Within three seconds, Alvaro was sliding and rolling down the hill and ended up upside-down at the bottom. Simba just couldn't resist that opportunity and lunged for his neck, luckily in a playful fashion. I think Alvaro broke the record for quickest time to get jumped. Another time we were on a hill and Simba turned around and had a sneaky look on his face that said he was going to jump for sure. Alvaro's reaction was to clasp his hands together and say, "Simba, I just want you to know that I love you, so please don't jump me." I don't know if Simba understood it, but he looked confused and actually backed down from the game. In the end, Alvaro didn't mind the attacks, but he didn't want to walk on the long trails every day. He went back to working with his first love, the birds.

My last day was quite sad. I tried to give Simba a hug, but he just wanted to give me some more of his love scratches. I'll miss him.

Picture of monkey.

Pumas aren't the only animals in the park.

Still, I knew it was time for me to go. I had many infected wounds that refused to heal in the humidity of the jungle. The leather on my shoe got torn apart from end to end and I'm not sure if I'll be able to fix it. The weather continued to be cold and rainy with only one day where the sun came out for a bit. Every other day I had to walk around all day in the rain with no way of escaping. It was so cold I started shivering as soon as I sat down. A month under those conditions was enough for me.

Despite the minor problems, I've really enjoyed working at the park. A lot of people have complained about the administration, how inefficiently things sometimes run, and that it's too expensive. It's true that normally you don't think of volunteering as something you should pay for, but it only costs $5 per day, which includes a place to sleep. Most of the park's money comes from the volunteers (some comes from outside donations as well), and there's no way the park could run without us paying something. I know the park isn't an ideal situation for the volunteers or the animals (the park doesn't even own the land and more of the forest gets chopped down every day), but considering that it's located in Bolivia (the poorest country in South America), and that anyone can come in and start working right away without any previous notice, I'd say it's actually run pretty well. Walking with Simba will undoubtedly go down as one of my best experiences in South America.

Worst part of working at the park: Having to walk across an extremely dangerous bridge on the way to and from work each day. It's part of the main route between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, so there's constant traffic, the bridge is barely wide enough for one big truck, let alone two passing each other, there's no sidewalks to hide from the traffic, and vehicles constantly pass each other despite the fact that the bridge is so narrow and there's a blind curve right after it. I seriously felt like I was risking my life every time I walked across it.

Best part of working at the park: Being able to fart and blame it on the puma.