Cochabamba Getaway

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By the time our Uyuni tour was over, neither Marc nor I had showered for – and this is where we give away that we have turned into total stinky hippy travellers – FOUR days.

If you sniff the screen you might be able to smell us.

In our defence, we didn’t really have a choice. We had showered in La Paz the morning we left, then took an overnight bus, then got off in Uyuni only to get straight onto a jeep to be taken to a salt hotel with no showers, then another hotel the following day again with no showers. I had already developed a close-knit relationship with my baby wipes, and we had bathed in the hot springs that same morning, but once our tour was over we were both gagging for a deep clean.

We made a decent attempt at finding a hotel that would give us a room for a couple of hours so we could finally wash before taking an overnight train later that evening, but the whole town of Uyuni had no water, what with it kind of being on the edge of a desert and everything, and so we had to resign ourselves to a fifth day of fermenting in our juices.

Showerless, we had a few hours to kill until our midnight train to Oruro on our way to Cochabamba, a city once dubbed the ‘breadbasket of Bolivia’ for its fertile foothills and warm climate. So we went for a pizza with our new friends from the Uyuni tour before they headed back to La Paz on their overnight bus. After they all left, we stuck around stealing the restaurant’s internet and nursing our drinks until they kicked us out.

In the process, we made friends with fellow traveller Trevor from Austin, Texas. We went for a drink with him in the one bar that was open in the whole town, and found out he is on a cycling tour around South America, and was going to head into the salt flats the next day and try to camp out (illegally) there. Trevor proved to be friendly, down-to-earth, and very interesting to talk to. His travel experiences were coloured by the fact that he was cycling through South America, interacting with people in a very different way from us. For a look into his adventures on the road, check out his blog, Me, Bob and Surly.

We bade farewell to our new friend half an hour before our train was due and headed to the station. As these things go in this part of the world, the train was late. As these things also go around this part of the world, we kept getting different information every time we’d ask for an update. At first, the train was supposed to be three hours late. Then it was just 10 minutes late. Then it was due to arrive in half an hour. Eventually, two hours past its initial departure time, we boarded our train and were on our way to our next destination.

At around 7am, a television screen that had remained off and unnoticed until that moment came to life and, as is also typical around these parts, woke us all up by blasting ‘80s hits, starting with “Walk of Life” by the Dire Straits. It was reminiscent of being woken up at summer camp, and was actually kind of cool and definitely effective.

Once in Oruro, where we had stopped in order to catch a bus to Cochabamba, we walked around for about an hour looking for somewhere to have breakfast, only to find that every single place recommended in our book was mysteriously closed. We eventually stopped at the local rendez-vous des gourmets, Super Hamburguesa, where Marc was reasonable and had a normal toast breakfast and I threw all caution and shame to the wind and opted for a desayuno criollo, which sounded like it was steak and chips. In reality it was even BETTER: a fried egg served on top of chopped beef in a tomato sauce with fries, toast and coffee. It was fantastic.

We eventually made it to the bus station (waddled?) and managed to catch a bus to Cochabamba, our final destination, just minutes before it left. We settled into our seats and marvelled at the fact that we seemed to be the only foreigners on the bus. Could we finally have made it off the well-beaten gringo trail? We soon found out that yes, we were indeed off the beaten track, but mostly because in our haste we had chosen the cheapest bus company.

Our bus driver seemed to fancy himself as the next Fernando Alonso and was equally enthusiastic with the accelerator and the breaks. But we didn’t notice so much as we wound our way down from the Bolivian altiplano into the warmer lowlands of the Yungas. Too many South American buses had desensitised us to the particularly passionate driving style of the region, and we suspected nothing until the bus, which had creeped to a crawl, eventually came to a stop at the side of the road, which also happened to be on the edge of a deep canyon.

All the passengers looked around and at each other, and some of us stuck our heads out the window where smoke was billowing. The latches to the engines had been opened, and the driver and his assistants were throwing water on them to cool them down. They were doing this with what looked like little buckets usually used by children to build sandcastles on the Costa Brava. And they had stuck big rocks under the wheels so as to prevent the bus from rolling away. This was not looking good.

The bus started up again, but had to come to another stop about 10 minutes later. This time we stopped for a good 30 minutes, while they repeated the splashing water on the smoking engines trick, while we fretted inside the bus. Outside, Bolivian women lifted their big skirts and squatted on the side of the road, emptying their bladders with abandon. This stop-start process was repeated a few times, and to top things off the driver would periodically turn off the engines to coast down the winding roads. At moments both Marc and I quite literally feared for our lives, but we made it, miraculously, to Cochabamba.

Welcome to paradise, or, Get me off this goddamn bus!

As we still had not taken a shower, and we were now covered in a thin film of cold sweat, we decided we deserved some pampering. So we checked ourselves into the nicest hotel in town (within our budget). They gave us a room with, evidently, a shower, and not one but TWO double beds, which we designated as the chill out bed and the sleeping bed. We had cable so we watched reruns of Seinfeld, Friends, Arrested Development, a slew of easy-viewing Hollywood films, and lots of BBC Entertainment shows like Dragon’s Den, Mary Queen of Shops and Secret Millionaire. We took full advantage of the WiFi and surfed the web for innane information while zoning out with the TV.We went for dinner at the local Italian restaurant, which turned out to be the fanciest place in town. We even drank wine. We had a BLAST.

In all seriousness, and this is something that all travellers we’ve met have agreed on, it’s important to give yourselves some “days off” once in a while. Yes, we are on a long-term “holiday”, and I am not insinuating that I’d rather be back in Paris working, but budget travelling can be hard work. (Ha. Please try to limit your insults.) If there is one thing we’ve learned it’s that the most beautiful places in the world are the hardest to get to.

Every beautiful destination we arrive at is a result of hours of organising, decision-making, negotiating, trying not to get ripped off, keeping an eye out for trouble without being totally paranoid, brutally early mornings, eternal bus rides on bumpy roads, breathlessness from high altitude, extreme weather conditions, bug bites, upset stomachs, cold or no showers, strenuous physical activity, and always the unexpected detail that falls into your lap at the last minute. All of this is of course part and parcel of the joys of travelling, and we were fully aware and ready for it, but my god does it feel good to treat ourselves to off days where we don’t do anything touristy and just lie around watching familiar TV and eating familiar “Western” food.

Old school and relaxed.

And so that is what we did in Cochabamba. But we managed to inject some touristy activities into our second day, with a walk around the local market where we finally bought some playing cards, partook in some empanada consumption, and a visit to the archaeological museum of Cochabamba University where we viewed some Inca and Tiwanaku mummies.

Mmmmpanadas

We even managed to buy ourselves a friendship bracelet each, which we tied for each other over a delicious and dirt cheap steak dinner, thus officially designating ourselves real travellers.

Waiting while our steaks grill in the background...

...and they're here.

We also found out that Cochabamba would be host to the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, a grassroots alternative climate conference,  which ended on Thursday with Evo Morales declaring that eating chicken makes men bald and gay.  Otherwise an interesting attempt at trying to come up with something new in the ever-stalled international climate change discussions.

Climate change and colourful cake.

Outside our cosy hotel room, Cochabamba proved to be a delightful town full of trees and flowers and a great selection of restaurants, cafés and bars, with hardly a tourist in sight. Perhaps that is why there was minimal hounding, which made it that much more pleasant for us. The balmy weather and lower altitude also helped. We had no expectations for Cochabamba but were pleasantly surprised, and we were sad to head back to hectic La Paz on the third day. We made sure we booked ourselves on the best bus company – Compañía Bolívar, for future reference – and headed refreshed (apart from a ‘mild’ bout of Bowelivia) back into the travelling lifestyle.

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