A thunder storm lit up the skies over Santa Cruz on our last night there. It started just as Jan and I were riding back to our hotel from the Giant Bikes store. We only got a little bit wet but just as we got in the door, the skies opened up and it poured cats and dogs for about 45 minutes.
The storm moved through the area during the night and caused a complete turnaround of the wind, much to our benefit, as we rode out of town with a brisk tail wind under cloudy skies. It was a bit slow getting out of the city because of traffic but once on the outskirts we were able to pick up the pace. In just over 3 hours we cycled 54 KM to Montero where we had a break for lunch in the company of a sloth that seems to be living in the plaza.
The wind mostly remained beneficial to us as we turn to the southwest and our destination for the day, Buena Vista, another 50 KM down the road. We found a lovely hotel, aptly named the Buena Vista Hotel, perched on an escarpment overlooking Amboro National Park where we wanted to spend a day to get a jungle fix in the hope of seeing some critters.
After breakfast we headed into town to one of the tour operators and quickly made a deal for a day-long tour into the park, a guide, lunch and transport included. A large Toyota SUV showed up at the hotel less than an hour later to pick us up. We drove through small villages and miles and miles of citrus fruit plantations as the road we travelled on got smaller and smaller until it was just a dirt track through the jungle.
We did several river crossings. Lucky for us, the rain from two days ago had not completely washed out the road and the river’s water level was not too high. But the mud proved too much even for this robust 4×4. We got stuck in the goo about 2 KM shy of our destination, Campamento La Chonta. Nothing to do but hike the rest of the way.
It was nice and steamy, just like you would expect when wandering about in the jungle. All kinds of interesting trees, shrubs and other plants in infinite varieties of green were just what we had come here for. At the camp we chose to go for a walk before lunch and Carlos guided us across the river down a trail.
We got lucky and saw an alligator sunning itself on a log in a swamp adjacent to the trail. Not one of those huge, jaw-snapping beasts from the nature films, but still, an alligator. There were some birds around but they were easier to hear and rather difficult to spot in the dense foliage.
Another entertaining feature were the leaf-cutter ants marching back and forth along and across the trail carrying bits of leaves to their giant ant hill home. The bits of leaves are taken inside the ant hill where they rot and become host to fungus which is what the ants feed on. Amazing real-life nature porn all at our feet. You couldn’t stand and admire it for too long, though, because the ants crawled up our shoes and on to our legs where they would bite. I think if you stayed long enough, eventually enough ants would show up to carry you away.
After lunch we went for another walk to a view point and then it was time to head back to the truck, which in the mean time had gotten unstuck from the muddy hole it was in when we left it. All in all, a lovely day in a very different environment which is why we had chosen to go this route.
The weather continued hot and steamy as we rode west along Highway 4 en route to Cochabamba. We were still in the flat lowlands so the kilometres flew by. At the end of the day we had done another 107 KM to Entre Rios, a bustling town about halfway to Cochabamba. We found some accommodation, had hot showers to wash off the sweat and road grime and went in search of a place to eat.
We didn’t have to go far. Right next door was a place called El Gourmet. We sat outside on a kind of patio/sidewalk and each of us had a dish with steak, fries, rice and salad, two large (3/4 litre) beers and a 2-litre bottle of coke for the amazing price of B$88 ($14). Tasty and cheap. Afterwards, we dashed across the highway to the central market to buy some ice cream for desert.
As we’ve become accustomed to doing, we cooked breakfast in our room. Almost always the floor is tiled so we can’t do any damage with the stoves. With a belly full of oatmeal we hit the road, continuing our westward track to Cochabamba. We crossed some large rivers and their tributaries: Rio Satja, Rio Chimor, Rio Chapare and Rio Veinticuatro. These all flow into the Amazon Basin and eventually out to the Atlantic.
We ended our day after cycling 106 KM in Villa Tunari, famous for its tropical weather and several nearby national parks. There were many hotels to choose from and we settled on Casa Grande near the town’s plaza. Despite the claims of hot water, the electric shower head failed to produce any, however, it was so warm and we were so sweaty that it was actually quite refreshing to have a cool shower.
And as per our routine, we wandered around town in the ever-hopeful search for a restaurant that might serve either something different or very large portions. A nice looking place at another hotel along the main road was relatively busy and by the looks of what people had on the table the portions were sizeable. The menu was extensive but had most of the usual fair. We were not disappointed. For the first time in a long time, one dinner was enough.
Our flatland ride was over after Villa Tunari. We began climbing back up into the Cordillera Oriental almost immediately. It was hot and humid and slow going. There were sections of dreaded Bolivian cobble stone. These torturous tracks are made of river rocks cemented onto the road bed. They used to have hundreds of kilometres of road like this but thankfully, many of them have been paved over. It’s impossible to go any faster than about 4 KM per hour on these medieval roads.
By late afternoon, we were gaining good elevation and were nearly halfway up the first big climb up to 1,850 metres when my rear hub suddenly failed catastrophically. It made a loud noise and remained in freewheel mode, i.e. the pedals just spun and did not engage the driving mechanism of the hub.
As it happened, we were at some kind of road maintenance station where there were a couple of buildings and the guys let us camp in the back, away from the noise of the trucks on the road. I took the hub apart, cleaned it and applied new oil and grease before putting it back together and going for a test ride. It seemed to work okay.
In the morning, however, we had only cycled about two kilometres before it did the same thing and my ride was over. As we were saying our goodbyes to Ellen and Elmar by the side of the road – we would hitchhike while they would ride on to Cochabamba – a bus came chugging up the road and for a lark I stuck out my thumb. The driver stopped immediately and said it was no problem and started loading our stuff. Five minutes later, the bags and bikes were in the luggage compartments of the bus and we were on the bus on our way to Cochabamba where we arrived four hours and 120 KM later. Price of the bus ride for us and the bikes: B$60 ($10). Price of the convenience and luck: priceless. Our luck for this sort of thing seems to be holding.
This was not one of those fancy long distance tour buses but rather an ordinary people mover. We were the only gringos on the bus with about three dozen men, women and children travelling to Cochabamba or villages along the way. It was an old Mercedes bus that had seen better days but it was comfortable enough and had plenty of leg room, even for a long one like me. People were sleeping, eating, listening to music and hanging out the windows. It smelled of coca, the favourite drug of high altitude Bolivianos. The coca has a particular smell, especially when it’s being masticated. It’s not a smell I enjoy.
The bus station in Cochabamba – well, it was really just a dusty street corner that reeked of piss where all the buses drop people – was not too far from the centre. We got oriented and walked about two kilometres toward the principal plaza, Plaza 14 de Septiembre. Just one block from there, we walked by the City Hotel, went in to check it out and decided to stay. Good price. Good location. Good showers.
We texted Ellen and Elmar to let them know the hotel’s address and looked up where the bike shop was. We had read online there was a good shop here that other cycling nomads had used and it happened to be only a twenty minute walk from our hotel. We pushed our bikes to La Bicicleta in the morning and they had Shimano Deore hubs in stock that will do the trick. That luck of ours is holding out.
The package of hub parts on its way to us from Phil Wood in California still has not arrived in Bolivia but it’s moot now since we could potentially only repair one hub. It’s been two weeks and there is no sign of it arriving. So much for express shipping. It took the US Postal Service a week just to get it from San Jose, California, to Miami, Florida. Where it is now, nobody knows. It’s probably languishing in some postal warehouse.
While walking to the bike shop, we got stuck in a large protest clogging up the streets around Plaza 14 de Septiembre. Traffic became gridlocked around the area. The protesters seemed to be mostly indigenous women marching on the municipal buildings at the plaza where the police kept them outside. Large groups of women sat down in the streets, shutting down traffic access to the centre completely. The protest lasted all day but it was peaceful.
When we arrived back at the hotel, Ellen and Elmar had just arrived so we were reunited. We will spend a bit more time here before moving on to La Paz. We went to pick up our bikes but upon inspection noticed that some of the spokes on my wheel were too short so we left them to have it redone. The next day, we visited the world’s largest Jesus, perched on a mountain overlooking Cochabamba.
Afterwards, we went back to the bike shop to pick up our bikes. My wheel had been redone but was not anywhere near straight but rather than have them mess around with it some more we decided to do it ourselves. Back at the hotel, Elmar, a bicycle engineer, straightened the wheel and with his help, I reset the brakes and greased the pedals. Hopefully, no more breakdowns.