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  • Writer's pictureRomy Jansen

It’s a Wild Life! – Cheese Fondue & Cocaine

After the flat and hot Chaco region of Paraguay, we were looking forward to Bolivia; a country with lots of birds and amazing mountain landscapes. Our first stop was Santa Cruz. After almost 35.000 km from Santiago (Chile) to Santa Cruz (Bolivia), it was time for some new tires for Forrest. We already tried in Asúncion to arrange new tires, but that wasn’t easy. Luckily in Santa Cruz there were multiple tire markets with different shops with all the brands and sizes. So in just 1,5 hours we found our new tires and they installed them under our car. Ready for many more kilometres in our awesome car.

As you already know, we don’t like cities too much. But cities have a big advantage; sometimes we can find things we miss. Back home we really love a good cheese fondue, but that is not easy to make in our car kitchen. Besides, our car doesn’t have that romantic setting for a cheese fondue. In Santa Cruz there was a Swiss restaurant. So after arranging our tires we went for a cheese fondue lunch. Yes, you read it correctly; lunch indeed. In Bolivia the most important meal is lunch. Bolivians like to eat a heavy meal in the afternoon and a small dinner before sleeping. Sometimes tea is dinner. In the whole country they offer ‘almuerzo completo’ for just a few euros. First you’ll get a soup and then a main dish. For us the perfect solution, because during lunch time it is too hot to search for birds anyway. And after sunset it’s getting really cold in the mountains, so then we don’t want to cook outside :)

We made another stop in Santa Cruz to pick up our Bolivian bird book. In Bolivia they only sell the Spanish version. Only outside Bolivia you can order the English version of the bird book. Luckily, a colleague of good friends of us went to Bolivia for a holiday and was so kind to bring the book from the Netherlands to Santa Cruz. Really nice! Because birding without a bird book makes it way harder to identify all the birds.

After a month of travelling through Bolivia, we think one of the most remarkable things is getting fuel. The government subsidizes the fuel. For more than ten years the fuel price is the same everywhere. In every gas station, in every city in the whole country the price is the same; about €0,54/l gasoline. That sounds amazing, but this low price is only for locals. Tourists with a foreign license plate or locals without a licence plate (lots of illegal cars here), need to pay the unsubsidized price, which is about twice as much. It takes a lot of paperwork to give to give gas to foreigners, and because of cameras they are afraid of getting caught if they give the local price to foreigners. Therefore many gas stations don’t want to do this extra work and regularly refuse to give fuel to foreigners. The only way to get fuel for the local price is to park your car around the corner of the gas station. Then walk with your 20 litre jerry can to the gas station. Give a random six digit ID number, fill up the jerry can and walk back to the car to fill it up. With our 80L tank, we have to repeat this action 3 to 4 times to fill up our tank. So that is how we get our fuel for the local price. It is such a funny happening if you see everybody filling up their tank with their own jerry can around the corner of the gas station, most of them spilling at least 5-10% next to their car… very safe!

While preparing lunch at the side of a birding road, a car passed by. The car stopped, and a retired Dutch couple came out for a talk. Rob had already contacted them before our world travel, because these two are the most experienced birders in Bolivia. They are living in Bolivia for ten years already and have the goal to see 1300+ bird species in the country. This first meeting was the beginning of ten fun days of travelling together. And what could be a better region to bird together then the region indicated as a red zone (do not travel there-region) according to the Dutch government; the cocaine producing region of Bolivia. In this region the Bolivian government tolerates locals planting coca trees. Even in National Parks, huge areas of trees are cut down for these coca plantations. Next to their small houses, big flat areas with pebbles are used to sun-dry the coca leaves. After drying they use gasoline to extract the cocaine out of the leaves. Gasoline often runs out at gas stations, because locals have a day job of filling up their car tank with fuel, bring it to the factory and pump the fuel out of their car again. To halt the cocaine export, the government of the USA demanded a checkpoint out of this region. The checkpoint is there, but they only check incoming cars, not the cars that are leaving. And that’s how the (base for) cocaine is travelling through the country. In this region we even saw a sign that the European Union subsidized a hanging bridge to create more accessibility towards a National Park (where the locals have their coca farms…). European money well spend…!

Of course the cocaine was not the reason to bird this area. Lots of new bird species live at different elevations in the mountains. So our days were filled searching for these birds, going up and down the mountains. Most of the times we thought we were the oldies, because our new Dutch friends were walking way faster at 3000m altitude than we did. Normally we sit down and take a coffee break around 10.00 in the morning to get some new energy, but this couple was unstoppable. They searched from early in the morning (05.30… we woke up at least an hour later) till at least 12.00 to search for some of the last fifteen species to accomplish their goal; 1300 bird species in Bolivia. Then it was time for lunch and after lunch we were walking again till dark, and after that they still had energy to search for owls. Birding keeps you young, they are the living proof. In these ten days we managed to see lots of birds together, learned a lot about the country and we enjoyed it a lot.

After these days we went our separate ways again, away from the cocaine region. We decided to spend 3 days on Cerro Turani near Cochabamba. On this mountain the endemic Cochabamba Mountain Finch and the Wedge-tailed Hillstar were our main goals, but we also managed to see lots of other birds. We found a ‘nice’ (lots of garbage everywhere) open area to camp the three nights. After travelling for ten months we are always happy if it’s cold enough to sleep inside the car and to park our car a bit sheltered from the road. Our requirements are not so high anymore ;). Although lots of traffic on the road, we slept like roses. The last night we decided to walk a little round to search for mammals. We were searching around with our big flashlights when a car and two motorcycles suddenly stopped next to us. In just a few seconds we were surrounded by six police men, heavily armed, who were on drugs patrol. - ‘What are you doing here?’ the policemen asked. - ‘Searching for mammals Sir.’ Do you remember the Brazilian Police men that stopped us? These police officers looked even more surprised. - ‘Where are you from?’ he asked. - ‘The Netherlands Sir’ - ‘Do you smoke?’ - ‘No Sir’ - ‘But you are from the Netherlands?’ - ‘Yes Sir’ - ‘And you don’t smoke?’ Our story didn’t sound good. Then he asked where our car was. They didn’t see it because it was a bit hidden from the road. We walked to our car and he saw the Chilean license plate. - ‘Where is your Chilean friend?’ We explained the police officer that we bought our car in Chile and are travelling for two years to search for birds and mammals. After a car search, a passport check (‘what is your husband’s name? What is his birthday?’), they ‘believed’ our story and went on their way again. Typical South America: legal cocaine production without any police, but car searches of tourists 100km further up…

After this first month in Bolivia, we are now taking some time to relax in a hotel in Cochabamba. Time to sort out all the photos and to plan the rest of our Bolivian adventure. And of course searching for things we miss in the big city. Googles: “Cochabamba” & “Cheese Fondue”


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