The view from our room
The view from our room

When I told a good friend of mine that I flew to RBQ, his first comment was “Isn’t that the name of a sandwich at Arby’s?”  Indeed, it is the name of a sandwich at Arby’s (the Arby-Q) but RBQ is also the airport code for Rurrenabque, Bolivia – Bolivia’s gateway to the Amazon Basin.

Rurre is about 150 miles from La Paz as the condor flies and there are two ways to get there.  Option 1 is a long bus ride that takes 18 hours in the best of cases and often as much as 30, and as a bonus, having a ticket doesn’t necessarily mean you will have a seat.  Option 2 is a short 40 minute flight.  Advice from other travelers was unanimous: take the plane!

For about $150 with picked up round-trip tickets with Amaszonas (Z8 to us airline nerds) in their Fairchild Metroliner 23 which makes the trip to RBQ seven times daily.  Check-in at La Paz’s El Alto International Airport was much like the process for any other airline at any other airport in the world.  ID check, a few questions about baggage and the selection of seats.  After paying the departure tax we headed through security for a efficient-and-respectful (read: outside-of-the-USA) security check.

Nice tow for the powercart!
Nice tow for the powercart!

Our aircraft arrived about 30 minutes late and the ground crew set to work on the turn.  Much of this was fairly normal, although, I was entertained when they pulled the power cart up with what appeared to be rust-colored late 80′s Fiat Uno.  Refueling, a walk-around by the new crew, and baggage loading took all of twenty minutes and soon after they called us for boarding.

We had seats in row 9, the very last row of the 19-seat aircraft.   The last row is actually three seats across but the middle was unoccupied so all together we had 18 passengers, a captain and a first officer.  After everyone was onboard the captain yelled something to the passengers in the first few rows.  It may have been about the huge backpack in Mr. Seat 2A’s lap or it could have been a safety announcement, I am not sure which.  Either way, it must not have been too important because a few seconds later the engines started up and we started to roll.

The takeoff roll down runway 28L seemed exceptionally long but I guess most of that was due to the thin hot air at El Alto’s ridiculous 13,400ft (I guess that means most jumbos have to de-pressurize before landing here!).  Once airborne, we climbed to the west for a good while and caught a glimpse of Lake Titicaca before turning back to the east to shoot the pass through the Cordillera Real.  The views through the desolate and glaciated mountains was spectacular though the ride was quite bumpy.  Mere minutes after passing the Cordillera, it was as if the Earth just fell away as the Altiplano gave way to the Amazon Basin.

Just before arrival in Rurre we passed over a couple smaller mountain ranges covered in jungle as well as the town of Rurre itself.  Touchdown on RBQ’s runway 32 was nice and smooth and I got to experience my first dirt taxiway a few moments later (complete with horses roaming about).

Turning on to the downwind leg.
Turning on to the downwind leg.
RBQ
RBQ

Our return trip, one week later, was much the same although the weather was rainy and dreary and we suffered a 3-hour delay.  I am happy to report that the open-air RBQ terminal has a proper complement of stray dogs, a detached eatery and the most outhouse-like bathrooms I have experienced at any commercial air terminal.  My biggest regret is that I didn’t ask the guy running the show if I could come up into the small control tower to get a picture!

RBQ toilet and eatery
RBQ toilet and eatery

When it was time for us to go, we found out that we had to load ourselves back in the bus that had brought us from downtown Rurre.  The dirt taxiway we had used the week before was impassable thanks to the soggy ground so the bus took us out on the runway to meet the plane.  Inboard passengers got to stand in the drizzle while their bags were unloaded then we traded places with them.  Amaszonas doesn’t refuel at RBQ (they carry enough fuel from La Paz) so the turn was nice and speedy, I bet the plane was on the ground less than 15 minutes!

Aircraft servicing on the runway (due to muddy taxiways)
Aircraft servicing on the runway (due to muddy taxiways)

The 40-minute flight back was surprisingly smooth considering the violent thunderstorms we had had the night before.  My window fogged over pretty badly thanks to the humidity so I did the best I could with the photos.  The view of the Cordillera was again spectacular and before we knew it we were touching down on 10R at El Alto.  All in all a great trip, although, I will admit I was a bit nervous flying a rural Bolivian airline!  Next up on the blog will be our tour through Madidi National Park.  More photos below, just click the thumbnails.

LPB-RBQ
Inbound aircraft arriving at El Alto Airport
Inbound aircraft arriving at El Alto Airport
Nice tow for the powercart!
Nice tow for the powercart!
All loaded up!
All loaded up!
Turning on to the downwind leg.
Turning on to the downwind leg.
Passing Rurrenabaque and the Beni River
Passing Rurrenabaque and the Beni River
On bumpy final into RBQ.
On bumpy final into RBQ.
RBQ
RBQ
Very happy to be on the ground.
Very happy to be on the ground.
The return trip started on a rainy day after a three-hour delay
The return trip started on a rainy day after a three-hour delay
Hand-written boarding passes!
Hand-written boarding passes!
One of the competing carriers.
One of the competing carriers.
RBQ toilet and eatery
RBQ toilet and eatery
Aircraft servicing on the runway (due to muddy taxiways)
Aircraft servicing on the runway (due to muddy taxiways)
Seat controls (luz, not working)
Seat controls (luz, not working)
Parking next to some classics
Parking next to some classics
Happy survivors!
Happy survivors!

Nothing terribly exciting to report about La Paz.  We arrived by overnight bus from Sucre, a ride which was surprisingly comfortable given it was on a Bolivian bus.  We looked into flying but the prices were high and the day we wanted to leave were sold out.  The 12-hours on a discarded Argentine bus (full-cama) went by quickly enough.

Houses coat the walls of the valley
Houses coat the walls of the valley

We stayed at a hotel called Cruz de Andes that smack bang in the middle of the tourist ghetto and co-located with the Mercado de las Brujas (Witch’s Market).  Having to walk past dried llama feetuses to get to/from our room was a bit annoying but the location was convenient enough.  On the morning of our arrival we dropped by the Museo de Coca which addresses the controversial plant.  Coca has been cultivated traditional in this part of the Andes for thousands of years and is usually chewed or brewed in a tea by the locals.  This was all well and good until somewhere figured out how to refine it into cocaine (and other drugs).  Nowadays there is a heated controversy whether the Andean people should be allowed to continue their tradition.

Big mean Dodge minibuses.
Big mean Dodge minibuses.

Walking around in La Paz is a pain!  Aside from the annoying hills and altitude, the sidewalks are completely cluttered with all sorts of wares.  Blankets, hats, fried nuts, fruits, etc.  There is very little room to move around.  Crossing streets is also a bit of a challenge.  Few streets in La Paz have traffic signals so most intersections are a free-for-all.  The minibuses, micros, taxis and common cars all continuous fight for right away and I can assure you that pedestrians are not a high priority for any of them.  Entertainingly, along the main thoroughfare in La Paz one can see crossing guards that the city has hired to help people cross the road – they even make them wear zebra costumes!

Crossing guards / zebras
Crossing guards / zebras

Well that is about it for La Paz.  Like I said, nothing all that special – just a big city.  After La Paz we took a trip to Rurrenabaque to see Madidi National Park.  The photos are quite good we think (hint hint: monkeys and toucans!) so stay tuned!

La Paz, Bolivia
The witch's market near where we stayed.  Plenty of dried llama fetuses if you are looking for one.
The witch’s market near where we stayed. Plenty of dried llama fetuses if you are looking for one.
Point-to-point wiring.  Not as bad as some I've seen but a commendable effort.
Point-to-point wiring. Not as bad as some I’ve seen but a commendable effort.
Houses coat the walls of the valley
Houses coat the walls of the valley
Big mean Dodge minibuses.
Big mean Dodge minibuses.
Crossing guards / zebras
Crossing guards / zebras
Reject Bluebird school buses also roam the streets.
Reject Bluebird school buses also roam the streets.
A friendly ice cream dealer at Plaza Avaroa
A friendly ice cream dealer at Plaza Avaroa
Not the best, but not bad.
Not the best, but not bad.
Illimani looms over La Paz - 21,122 ft
Illimani looms over La Paz – 21,122 ft
Old ladies at kiosks sell cheap ($0.14) soda all over La Paz.
Old ladies at kiosks sell cheap ($0.14) soda all over La Paz.

Our time in South America is rapidly coming to a close.  We are scheduled to fly back to the States from Lima, Peru on June 7th for my brother’s wedding.  We thought we had everything planned out, that was until a good old South American protest got in the way.

After leaving La Paz, Bolivia we had hoped to cross into Peru and hit up some of the major sights.  A few days around Lake Titicaca then a short flight over to Cuzco to check out Machu Picchu followed by another short flight into Lima to link up with our award ticket back to the States.  Unfortunately, the border between Bolivia and Peru was closed by large scale protests (about mining rights) in Peru about three weeks ago.  From what we read in the news, all of the possible land border crossings have been closed by the protesters.  Looting, burning cars in the streets, gunfire and what-have-you are the sorts of things in the news.  Not exactly where we want to be.

Most of the other travelers we have met are planning to detour through Chile in order to continue their trips into Peru.  Flying is also possible but prices are sky-high due to the increased demand as well as Bolivia’s crazy ticket taxes.  The vast majority of Peru is still safe for travel but we decided it would be too much of a rush to fit in this detour.  Instead, we opted to visit the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca and then use some miles to get from northern Chile (Arica to be exact) to Lima for our flight home.  It is an 8-hour bus ride from La Paz to Arica but that hopefully won’t be too bad.

The only routing available was via Santiago but that was still preferable to many hours on Peruvian buses and giving up our visit to Lake Titicaca.  We will be making a two-day stop in Santiago and then will continue on to Lima, Miami, Denver then finally Montana.  Peru will just have to wait for another trip.  Of course the blog posts will keep coming over the next few weeks…I have quite a backlog of stories and photos to share!


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