Old Town Square, Warsaw
Old Town Square, Warsaw

Second to Madidi Park, the most popular attraction for visitors to Rurrenabaque is Bolivia’s vast grasslands known as The Pampas.  A guided tour seemed to be the way to go so we organized one from Rurre and it came to about $145 for a two-day, one-night tour – quite pricey for Bolivia!  The guy at the tour company, a real slick used car salesman type, told us that we had to meet at the office at 8:30AM sharp the next day for our departure.  He said we needed to make sure that we left on time to beat the other companies and to avoid the dust.  Certainly an intriguing reason for an on-time departure.

After a restless night of sleep in one of the dumpier room offerings in Rurre we walked over to the tour company for our 8:30 appointment.  A small SUV was waiting for us and there was a bit of commotion as the guide’s underlings strapped stuff to the luggage rack.  The salesman neglected to inform us that there was very little space in the vehicle so I had to quickly pull some essentials from my pack before storing it in the company office.

The road to the pampas.  A bit dusty, no?
The road to the pampas. A bit dusty, no?

Leaving Rurre the road quickly went from pavment to cobblestone to dirt.  The next 50 miles of bumpy road looked as if it was made of ground-up brown chalk and each passing vehicle, pedestrian, and cow stirred up an impressive amount of the stuff.  The calm winds that morning made the dust just linger over the road and many many times our driver plunged our vehicle into dust clouds we couldn’t see through.  Three hours to go 50 miles – yep, still in Bolivia.

An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.

At the camp near San Rosa, our guide told us that there would be a bit of a delay before our rooms and lunch were ready.  He suggested that we go relax in the hammocks for a bit.  Thirty minutes passed, and then an hour before lunch was served.  After lunch the guide told us that our first boat trip into the Pampas would start at approximately 4pm.  At this point Amy and I were pretty frustrated with this tour company.  We booked a two-day tour and we burned almost the entire first day in a car or hammock.

After the lengthy siesta we loaded up in one of the motorized canoes and headed up the river to see the pink river dolphins.  The winding river was flanked by short water-loving trees and there were large wading birds everywhere we looked.  The terrain reminded me of the Florida Everglades but the density of wildlife was seemingly much higher.

Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)

It wasn’t long before we spotted some capybaras, the world’s largest rodent, as well as some monkeys.  The capybaras, which top out at around 100 pounds, were surprisingly calm around us photo-snapping tourists.  At one point Amy got within just a few feet of one that was grazing on the riverbank.

Pink river dolphins, too, were easy to find but photographing them proved difficult.  They would frequently break the surface with their fins and snouts but it was next to impossible to predict when and where they would come up next.  We were given the option to swim with them but Amy and I declined and left that to the two Australians that were with us.

The next morning we were up early for our second boat ride on the river.  With howler monkeys howling away in the distance we loaded into the boat just before the sun came up.  A short while into our ride we heard something crashing through the trees along the river.  Our guide pulled over to the side and before we knew it yellow squirrel monkeys were running around on our boat.  Unfortunately, some of the tour groups feed the monkeys so as soon as they see a tour boat they jump on board and look for food.  They must have been disappointed in us though because we didn’t give them any more than stares.  One of them managed to catch and devour a huge water bug while we were stopped.  Crunch, crunch, crunch!

Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect

The variety of birds that we saw during the ride was absolutely incredible.  All sorts of herons and ibis plus a few storks and spoonbills as well.  Rounding each corner of the snaking river revealed more and more birds.  Equally plentiful were the caiman sunning themselves along the banks.

By midday we had all had enough of the boat riding.  Hours in a rickety metal seat in the blaring sun was enough and we were happy to return back to the camp.  After a quick lunch we loaded up in another vehicle (this time even more packed) to make the three hour trip to Rurre.

Black Caiman
Black Caiman

All in all, I would say that the Pampas are a great place to visit if you want to see lots of wildlife in a hurry.  By Bolivian standards, the tour was very pricy and it makes me wonder how much money one could save by traveling independently to San Rosa and arranging boat trips from there.  The next post will be my last on Bolivia and then the blog will take a turn for the South Pacific!

The Pampas
The road to the pampas.  A bit dusty, no?
The road to the pampas. A bit dusty, no?
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
Red-headed buzzard with a rainbow
Red-headed buzzard with a rainbow
Cappuccino monkey
Cappuccino monkey
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
A large male (you can tell by the shiny bump on his snout)
A large male (you can tell by the shiny bump on his snout)
Not Jaws but rather a friendly pink river dolphin.
Not Jaws but rather a friendly pink river dolphin.
Oropendola nests
Oropendola nests
Tropical comorant
Tropical comorant
Caracara and friend
Caracara and friend
Caracara
Caracara
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey
Yellow squirrel monkey
Monkey on the boat!
Monkey on the boat!
Rufescent Tiger Heron
Rufescent Tiger Heron
Black Caiman
Black Caiman
Caiman
Caiman

Desierto de Dali
Desierto de Dali

Day 2 started off nice an early.  4:30 or thereabouts, definitely within what is called the “madrugada” in Spanish.  None of us slept well that night thanks to the well-below-freezing temperatures and the 4,200m of altitude.  I slept in long-johns, a tshirt, a long-sleeve shirt, my fleece inside of a sleeping bag under three heavy wool blankets and I was still pretty cold.  Our driver loaded our stuff on top of the jeep while we chowed down on some breakfast.

We pulled out of San Antonio de Lipez around 5AM and headed for the ruins of a deserted town.  Along the way we had to forge a number of frozen-over streams.  The old mining town was one of the many places where the Spanish forced the Incans to dig for silver.  The story has it that the town is now haunted.  Visiting the town in the pre-dawn twilight gave it an even creepier feel.  The only remaining resident is this nice fluffy viscacha.

A viscacha!
A viscacha!

We pressed on through a 4,855m mountain pass with a great view of Lago Morejon and Volcano Uturuncu (6,0008m).  Frost on covered the ground that was shadowed from the sun by the small hearty shrubs that manage to flourish at this altitude.  Walking just a few yards on level ground proved to be enough to make us winded.

We descended from the pass and crossed a few more rivers – one of them was quite deep and I was happy that the door seals on our Toyota were in good shape!  Temperatures remained quite low but the intense sunshine made being outside much more bearable.  We visited another high-altitude lake where borax mining was underway.

Passing by the settlements of Quetena Chico and Quetena Grande, we entered the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna.  The  lunch stop was at some hot springs at the aptly named Aguas Calientes.  We could bathe if we wanted although I just put my feet in the water.   Once lunch was finished we crossed the Desierto de Dali and reached the shore of Laguna Verde.  The lake is free of wildlife because of the naturally-occuring arsenic in its waters.  The element gives the lake its color.  The stop at Laguna Verde was the southernmost point on our tour and we were just a short distance from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile where we had traveled a few days prior.

Laguna Verde with Volcan Licancabur (5950m) behind
Laguna Verde with Volcan Licancabur (5950m) behind

Heading back north we made a stop at Geisers Sol de Mañana, a geyser field just below 5000m altitude.  Most of the activity is steam vents but there are also a few boiling mud pots to be seen (if you dare go close enough).  The highest point on the tour was just a little further ahead at 5,000m (16,400ft) and we got there just in time to see another tour jeep broken down on the road.  Despite the fact that it was a competing company, we stopped (along with seven others) to lend a hand.  These guys definitely work together when things go wrong!

We made it to the village of Huaylljara just before sunset and prepared for another cold night.  Dinner was pique macho, a traditional french-fries-covered-in-everything-unhealthy dish that hit the spot.  Afterwards, we all competed around the camp’s single wood stove while we learned a new card game from our Dutch friends.  And that was that, another great day in Bolivia.

Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Southwest Circuit Day 2
Incan ruins
Incan ruins
A viscacha!
A viscacha!
Morning frost
Morning frost
Forging rivers
Forging rivers
Middle of nowhere
Middle of nowhere
Hot springs
Hot springs
Lunch at the hot springs.  Meat balls, pasta, veggies and salad
Lunch at the hot springs. Meat balls, pasta, veggies and salad
Driving across the Desierto de Dali
Driving across the Desierto de Dali
Desierto de Dali
Desierto de Dali
Laguna Verde with Volcan Licancabur (5950m) behind
Laguna Verde with Volcan Licancabur (5950m) behind
When a truck breaks down, all the tour operators chip in to help.
When a truck breaks down, all the tour operators chip in to help.
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Traditional Bolivian food for dinner: Pique (french fries topped with meats and eggs).  There was veggie pique for Amy as well!
Traditional Bolivian food for dinner: Pique (french fries topped with meats and eggs). There was veggie pique for Amy as well!

On our second day on Chiloé we woke up to a thick fog and piled on a heavy breakfast at the hostel.  The rain had stopped and it looked like the sun was trying burn through the fog.  We jumped in our trusty Chevy and headed east to find the coastal road that stretches from the port of Chacao (where our ferry from Puerto Montt landed) to Castro which is about half way down the island.

The dirt road took us through a hilly green countryside that was covered in small farms.  We passed through numerous seaside villages and stopped to see some of the wooden churches and seaweed-covered beaches.  It appeared that many of the homes were involved in the seaweed industry as they had piles of the stuff drying nearby.

Quemchi, Chile
Quemchi, Chile

We made it to Quemchi, about halfway to Castro, by the early afternoon and realized that our progress down the coast was much slower than expected.  We made a quick visit to the mirador in Quemchi to get a bird’s eye view of the village and the fish (shellfish?) farming rigs out in the bay and then hopped on Ruta 5 for Castro.

Castro, the pricipal city on Chiloé (population 40,000), was quite lively when we arrived.  We pulled into a parking spot right along the main square and only had to walk a few steps to the tourist office.  We have been very impressed with the tourist offices both here in Chiloé and in the Lakes District of Argentina; they know how important tourism is and the materials they provide are very good.

The first item on the to-do list in Castro was lunch.  We had heard that there were some nice waterfront restaurants down by the market so we headed in that direction.  Within minutes we were sitting at a nice table right by the water-facing window of a stilthouse.  After spying on the food on the surrounding tables I decided to give curanto a go.

Curanto: a big bowl of mussels, clams, chorizo, chicken, pork and some sort of bread patty.  Served with broth.
Curanto: a big bowl of mussels, clams, chorizo, chicken, pork and some sort of bread patty. Served with broth.

Curanto is a hodgepodge of shellfish, meat and potatoes.  Traditionally, it is cooked in a hole in the ground but I suspect that what I had for lunch was prepared in a stew pot.  The enormous bowl included a very generous serving of mussels, clams, chorizo, pork, chicken and milcaos.  The mussels were absolutely massive, definitely the biggest I’ve seen and were exceptionally tender.  Certainly not the chewy sand-filled things I often get around Boston.  In the end, I wasn’t able to finish the entire bowl but I guess that isn’t too surprising seeing that the three ladies sitting next to us split one bowl between the three of them.  The meal was an exceptional value at 8 USD.

After lunch we visited the massive chuch of San Francisco which is the largest of the wooden churches on Chiloé.  Next, we headed to another section of waterfront to check out the colorful palofitos which are traditional stilt-house.  

Before we knew it our time with our rental car was up and we had to return it to Ancud.  I was happy that I didn’t have to wash it!

Before...
Before…
...and after!
…and after!

Castro, Chiloé Island, Chile
The Andes as seen from Chiloé
The Andes as seen from Chiloé
Boat in the mist
Boat in the mist
The church in the village of Lliuco
The church in the village of Lliuco
Seaweed drying in the sun
Seaweed drying in the sun
Drying seaweed
Drying seaweed
Quemchi, Chile
Quemchi, Chile
Curanto: a big bowl of mussels, clams, chorizo, chicken, pork and some sort of bread patty.  Served with broth.
Curanto: a big bowl of mussels, clams, chorizo, chicken, pork and some sort of bread patty. Served with broth.
The palafitos (“stilt houses”) in Castro
The palafitos (“stilt houses”) in Castro
Before...
Before…
...and after!
…and after!

After a brief one-night stay in Bariloche to get our bearings we rented a newish base-model Chevy Corsa.  When I say base-model, I mean it.  No aire acondicionado, no power locks, no power windows and, best of all, no power steering.  Good times!  On the plus side, it did have a Sony radio that could receive AM, FM and shortwave.  Renting cars in Argentina is pretty easy with a US drivers license though you do have to be cautious of the prices.  They may be higher  than advertised (~10%) if you aren’t paying cash.

Setting out from Bariloche we followed the famous Siete Lagos drive to San Martín de los Andes.  The drive is less than 200km but it took us a good six hours.  Part of this was due to the fact that you have to stop every 5-10 minutes to enjoy the views.  Another reason was the condition of the dirt road which comprises about one third of the route.  We had to be cautious with our vehicle’s generous 8 inches of ground clearance through areas where there was construction.  The great thing is that there were very few other cars out that day.  Based on the number of companies hocking tours of the route, I gather that the road is packed with tour buses in high-season.

Along the way we quickly lost track of the number of lakes we had seen or their names so I’m not even going to try to reconstruct that for you.  I think the photos below will give you the general idea though.

In the next few days I will be posting more about our time in San Martín de los Andes including my special birthday dinner. We are back in Bariloche now but will be saying goodbye to Argentina tomorrow as we plan to take a morning bus across the Andes to Puerto Montt in Chile.  After a hopefully brief connection we will be off to the town of Ancud on Isla Chiloé.

Siete Lagos Drive
Ruta 231 heading north out of Bariloche
Ruta 231 heading north out of Bariloche
Our base model Chevy.  Stick shift with no power steering.
Our base model Chevy. Stick shift with no power steering.
A lizard!
A lizard!

 

Fortunately, our marathon bus ride from Buenos Aires was the hardest part of our journey from the biggest city in the country to one of the least inhabited parts of the country.  We read about Bahía Bustamante in a NY Times article a few weeks ago and decided that a visit was an absolute must.  Bahía Bustamante is a tiny village and nature preserve that now accepts a small number of guests each night.  The village calls itself “el único pueblo alguero del mundo” or, the only town dedicated to producing seaweed in the world.

Bahía Bustamante is on the coast about 200km north of Comodoro Rivadavia.  One option for getting there is to take a bus to the nearby town of Garayalde and from there you can arrange car transport to the estancia.  The other option is to rent a car in Comodoro and drive the whole way yourself.  We opted for the latter for the flexibility and we were glad we did as there are a number of sights in the area to which you can drive.

Renting was a piece of cake.  You can either use a local firm (there are dozens) or you can use one of the corporate giants (Avis, Hertz, etc).  We ended up with Avis as the seemed to be the cheapest of the bunch.  Total price for a three day rental of a VW Gol came out to $145.  While I was shopping around I discovered that it is often helpful to pick up from the city location (as opposed to the airport) as you can avoid the nasty 20% concession tax.  This trick also works in the States…good to know.

While I was working on the rental car situation with Avis, Amy ran to the grocery store and stocked up on food for coming days.  At Bahía Bustamante you can choose between self-catering (some houses have kitchens) and having your meals prepared for you.  We opted to self-cater to keep our costs down.

My first Argentine truck stop!
My first Argentine truck stop!

With a (very small) car full of groceries and backpacks we headed up Ruta 3 towards Bahía Bustamante.  It is a good thing we stocked up before we left town because there is very little along the highway north of Comodoro.  On the two hour drive we only saw one truck stop and by that I mean a shack along the side of the road that didn’t even sell gas (only meals and refreshments).  Once we turned off Ruta 3, it was about 40km further to Bahía Bustamante along a gravel road.  It was on this road that we had our first guanaco and ñandu sightings.

The quiet village of Bahía Bustamante
The quiet village of Bahía Bustamante

The village was exactly as promised.  Laidback and quiet.  The streets here are all named after different species of seaweed!  It took us a little while to find the staff (read: this place is quiet!) but they soon showed us to our house.  I believe that the house we are staying in was originally workers housing, although it seems they have been modified to make room for a kitchen and large bathroom.  Our place was $110 a night and was more than enough space for the two of us.  There will be more tomorrow about Bahía Bustamante including lots of pictures of penguins! 

Bahía Bustamante – Day 1
My first Argentine truck stop!
My first Argentine truck stop!
First guanaco sighting!
First guanaco sighting!
Then some ñandúes!
Then some ñandúes!
Steamer ducks (patos vapor)
Steamer ducks (patos vapor)
American Oystercatchers and some seagulls
American Oystercatchers and some seagulls
The quiet village of Bahía Bustamante
The quiet village of Bahía Bustamante
Home cookin
Home cookin
Moonrise
Moonrise


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