Tierra Caliente in Bolivia

Chatting by the table

In the beginning I must admit that the last few weeks spent at over three thousand meters made me feel a bit tired. This feeling is accompanied by longing. I miss early morning sun which warms up my tent and wakes me up. I also miss these pleasant evenings, sitting outside in the town square, talking with strangers, drinking local wine and enjoying the idyllic atmosphere of Latin towns. Our quest to find tierra caliente (“hot land”) leads to el Valle de la Concepción, the place where it is fairly easy to forget that the notion of time has ever existed.

Fiesta and siesta

Endless vine plantations mixed with colorful brick buildings create a sun-filled fantasy-like landscape. One of the largest local villages surrounded by vineyards and producing wine is la Concepción.

We are visiting two of the local wineries: Casa Vieja and.. the name of the other escaped me because all my attention went to observing growing grapes, aging wine (both in drums and bottles) and tasting red wine made from different types of Bolivian grapes.

Sipping wine seated comfortably on a wooden deck chair in the shade of the vine we enjoy blue sky and pleasant sunny weather. It is siesta time in the town and there is a total silence disturbed only by vague sounds of birds singing, insects working, grapes gently ripening and leaves subtly flowing in the wind.

It is notable that wine in Bolivia is grown at an altitude of between 1700 and 2400 meters. As a result, due to an increased exposure to ultraviolet radiation Bolivian grapes get rich aroma and unique flavor recognized worldwide. Wine production is an important part of the economy in this part of Bolivia and over 20,000 people are estimated to make their living on its production.

The major town in the valley is a friendly place Tarija, where you can easily get to know some interesting people. One of these is Joe, an man in his sixties who shows us the Bolivian way to drink wine: each one drinks in his turn, nearly full glass of wine is followed by another glass in the next turn. This is done with comity and courtesy. Drinking that way you have to open another bottle sooner than you think.

It may sound quite unusual, but the other time, completely by chance, we meet Joe’s brother, who has founded archaeological fossils museum and continues to develop it on a daily basis.

We are going to search for fossils to a nearby plateau. There is a surprise! With nearly no effort we find the remains of some prehistoric turtles, vertebrates and… an almost untouched mammoth horn! It’s amazing that such things are left unattended here and that they are still here!

What was I saying? Oh yeah, in southern Bolivia, as opposed to the rest of the country, you easily spot many attractive girls on the streets. This may be the influence of Argentina or Paraguay? Maybe a warm climate? Perhaps the proximity of Brazil? I do not know, but this certainly is not a reason to be worried about.

Accidentally on time

Business class with an unlimited leg room

I catch a night bus to Yucuiba with Chris, a cool guy with whom I have already traveled for a while. Luckily we are delayed 4 hours. This is quite common, even when the bus is not going to break down, the driver would stop a few times out of habit to take a break or even make one extra-long break (usually several hours) to get some sleep and not-arrive on time. Anyway, I suppose all the other passengers also prefer to arrive in the morning rather than at night.

Villamontes is the original tierra caliente. The hot land which deserves its name, or if you prefer, the hottest city in Bolivia. Some more hitchhiking, getting lifts by a big truck, 40-year-old Volvo, pick-up and some more rides take us to the Canon del Pilcomayo.

Marching along the canyon loaded with backpacks is extremely strenuous. It is more than 40 Celsius in the shade. Our narrow path crosses the lush greenery and leads us to the muddy riverside. River is raging at this time of year. We cross one of the wicked side channels (in fact, carrying water in both directions), then we climb up the steep slope of the ravine to spot a place for camping.

In the morning we come to the nearby village on the road. We play cards and talk with kids, seeing if something is going to happen. After a few hours a massive truck stops. The driver (and as it later turns out, the owner) takes off the heavy ragged covering and invites us to sit in the back on the top of gravel. Before we set forth, the driver crosses himself and prays for a few seconds at a roadside chapel. I quickly find out why.

Driving the length of the truck right on the edge of a cliff requires some magical skills. Maneuvering between overhanging cliffs and sharp rocks on one side and several meters deep abyss on the other side while trying maintain at least 30 centimeters of safe margin off the edge with truck’s massive wheels is very tricky. Sometimes just moving at a pace of a fast turtle is enough to feel the adrenaline.

I name it second Death Road in Bolivia (the only difference it has never been made so famous as the original one in Coroico). After a few hours descending down the bumpy road, enjoying all the dirt, dust and gravel all over we look just like miners in Potosi.

Boyuibe is a peaceful village. Upon arrival we befriend a vegetable seller near the main square. He is a good-natured man who lives with his wife in an almost permanently parked vegetable-filled truck. He recommends us to pitch a tent in the center, right in the middle of the square, it is ‘a peaceful place’, he assures. Kids are running around on the street until late night, here and there some homeless people are hanging around, looking for companionship, a bit bored, rather than being a nuisance.

Our mission is to find transportation to Paraguay. After a few conversations it appears that the Trans-Chaco road is totally destroyed and impassable. It is almost impossible to get out of this village, but we decide to go for an alternative option.

Several-kilometer-long walk leads to a toll collection point. A fee-collection officer looks a bit scruffy but he is a cheerful character. It is a man wearing a torn shirt, constantly chewing on coca leaves forming a big bowl on his right cheek. He helps us to stop one of the pick-ups passing by.

In the end it works. Also, a 75-year-old Bolivian lady joins us and together the three of us travel sitting in the back of car. A pleasant feeling of movement has returned.

Revisiting Villamontes we do not have that much luck. In the end there are no local connections to Bolivian border and the only bus goes straight to Asuncion, the Paraguay’s capital. It is schedules to leave in the middle of the night a few days after. As usual, everything is uncertain or delayed, so is our delay (de facto I wouldn’t call it a delay, it is rather just a part of traveling).

Therefore, once again, I got stuck in Bolivia for some time. And that’s the beauty of this country. How happy I am not to hurry and to be going nowhere.

February 2012

tierra caliente