The road from Santa Cruz to Rurrenabaque via Trinidad and San Borja is notorious as one of the toughest routes in Bolivia. Given how tough most routes are in this country, we were not looking forward to it. But it was better than going back to La Paz. And on the way we’d visit the remote village of San Ignacio de Moxos and have a cool adventure in a river canoe.
The night bus from Santa Cruz to Trinidad was remarkably painless. Dirt road most of the way, but flat, and seemingly relatively straight, the worst we could say was that it was stinking hot and the two fat guys behind us snored like the diesel engine that was driving us through the tropical night. Trinidad, like the bus, was steaming hot.
To cool off, we headed to a part of the river recommended to us as a clean swimming hole where river dolphins like to swim. Sounded great! When we got there, we found a pretty unappealing bend in the river where boats were maintained. A thin oil slick covered the water’s surface and there was rubbish and muck floating all around. No dolphins, of course.
Some little kids approached us offering a boat. At first we waved them off, but after roaming pointlessly in the searing heat we decided to salvage the afternoon by accepting their offer. Alvaro and his brother Fernando were 11 and 7 respectively, and their boat was a simple canoe (we later found out it wasn’t even theirs). We agreed a price and they promised to take us to the “third beach” where the water was cleaner.
It soon became clear that little Alvaro, try as he might, didn’t have the strength to keep the canoe moving. I took over and he and his brother spent most of the next half hour leaping off the canoe, swimming around, and climbing back in. Every time they flew into the river, the canoe veered wildly and I had to swing it back around to keep on course. Apart from that it was quite easy. All I need for a career in Venice is a funny hat and clown pants.
We eventually found another beach, not much more attractive than the others. But we swam anyway, and despite being muddy and dirty it was cool and refreshing.
On the way back we had to fight the current. After paddling with increasing degrees of futility, we all jumped out and pushed. The river was only about two feet deep here. A bunch of other little kids were playing in the water and they all joined in for a little while. It was lots of fun.
Trinidad to San Ignacio de Moxos
Want a bumpy ride? Do this route, in any vehicle. We rolled out around noon in a collectivo and pretty soon were literally bouncing off our seats with alarming frequency. Like the road from Santa Cruz to Trinidad, but a lot worse, this highway was an inch-thick layer of fine dust covering a bumpy, rutted and rocky undersurface. The dust permeated everything. With windows open because it was so hot, the dust flowed into the car and into our eyes and noses and ears and cameras. A young mother with three tiny children was squeezed into the back seat. It wasn’t long before we stopped for the little ones to vomit on the side of the road.
The only respite was a few concrete bridges of delightfully smooth running and a half-decent plate of fried fish while we waited for the pontoon ferry to arrive and take us across the Rio Mamore. One of our local travelling companions, a beer-bellied Bolivian businessman, took me aside as we sailed over the river: “You are going to Rurre, yes?” “Yeah”. He drew closer, right into my ear, as if we were co-conspirators in a bold plot. “The fucking there is really good. Really good my friend!”
“Great” I said, unenthusiastically, not knowing how else to respond. He’d earlier recommended a hotel for us. I made a mental note to avoid it.
The highway also gave good service to the local cowboys. Our driver seemed to enjoy speeding right up to a herd of cattle and then, while braking hard, swerving amongst them like he was playing Grand Theft Auto: The Ranch Edition.
We reached San Ignacio de Moxos fairly well shattered. It was steaming hot there, too. We found a hotel and asked for the way to the nearest swimming hole, a lake about a mile out of town. A quick ride on a motor scooter taxi brought us there. In contrast to the river in Trinidad, this was a lovely clean lake, and the source of the town’s drinking water. We swam, watched the teenagers flirting with each other, and saw the sun off after another hard day’s traveling.
The town’s power failed that night, and we slept very uncomfortably in the impossible heat.
San Ignacio to Rurrenabaque
Another day, another Bolivian road. A few blocks from San Ignacio’s central plaza we found ourselves a collectivo to San Borja. This driver was more in control of his sanity than yesterday’s, but we still had to stop twice for our fellow-traveling ten year old boy to puke. He was hyperventilating in the heat too, which didn’t help. Poor little guy. The road was a little better on this stretch, but we did manage to blow a rear tyre. Ever helpful, I jacked up the car while another passenger loosened the wheel nuts. Anything to get the journey over quickly!
At San Borja, we went through the standard routine when getting a ride in Bolivia. The taxi tout calls out: “Rurre-Rurre-Rurrenabaque! Leaving right now!” We ask, “How many passengers do you have?” “Just you two, so far”. Ah-hah. “How many do you need before we can leave?” “Another four. We can leave with six.” “So you’re not leaving now, then?” “Well, now-ish”. “When are you leaving, exactly?” “Sometime today, for sure”.
As this man tried to swindle us into sitting in his van until another four people showed up, his competition, a gaggle of gregarious Bolivian women, told us to take the minibus to Yucumo, another fifty minutes away. We might find a quicker ride to Rurre from there. And so we piled into the minivan and raced away, without even seeing San Borja.
At Yucumo, a real two-street town, we went through the same rigmarole. This guy at least already had a few passengers, so with us on the manifest, he only needed one more. We took the gamble, and stood around in Yucumo for an hour or two as he roamed in circles, forlornly calling out “Rurre! Rurre! Leaving right now!”
It started to rain, really hard. This road is regularly impassable in wet weather. In the main wet season it is usually closed completely. Those buses that do get through take 6 or 7 days rather than the usual 20-24 hours for the full route. We were all naturally keen to get moving before the rain turned the road to mud, and between us we badgered the driver mercilessly. He fired up the engine and we set off into the threatening sky. Luckily it didn’t rain for long, and mercifully it wasn’t as bumpy as the previous stages. No-one needed to vomit, so we made good progress and reached Rurrenabaque about an hour before dark.
I washed my hair in the hotel that night. There was enough mud for an elephant’s bath.