July 21, 2019
We have returned to Bolivia for two reasons: (1) we did not venture into eastern Bolivia last year when we were here and (2) we want to visit the Pantanal in Brazil and winter is the best time to go as water is scarce making the wildlife more visible. This region is best reached from Bolivia.
Today is Sunday and we were surprised by how many 18 wheeler trucks were trying to get across the border too – fortunately, they use a different window than tourists do. It was chaos entering Bolivia because the road is narrow and it’s lined with shops and vendors. As soon as we crossed we got stopped by the local police to pay a “municipal fee” and since we’d just arrived we had to Bolivianos yet so we paid in Argentine pesos. Then we had to weave our way through the congestion to get out of town.
Since it was so busy we decided to skip the usual bank run for local currency until we arrived at the larger city we were planning to camp outside at and get money and vegetables. Well, that was a mistake because 23 km / 14 m up the highway there was a toll booth – we do not recall ever encountering one in Bolivia last year in our almost three months here.
Fran was driving so she told the toll booth operator we had no Bolivianos and he asked her what currency we did have; upon replying “Argentinian pesos” she was quote a new price. We pulled over and Doug converted the currency and figured out he was overcharging us so he went over and “negotiated” the price – still higher than the actual conversion but less that he asked. He gave us the ticket and it appears to be good all the way to Santa Cruz de la Sierra (our destination in a few days).
We arrived in Villamontes in the middle of that Sunday afternoon; it was pretty dead looking with hardy anything open but Doug did manage to get some cash out of an ATM. The time zone has changed and we are now on the equivalent of Eastern Daylight Savings time (which means now the sun will rise earlier). We are also above 22º south so continuing to get closer to the equator (we won’t make it there for ages as shortly after we enter Brazil, we will be going south again but nowhere near as far south as we’ve been – maybe down to 35º S). We checked out to markets hoping for produce; one was closed and the other only had fruit so we picked up some bananas.
The temperature has by now risen to 39C / 102F but at least it’s not humid which helps but the vegetation around us is all green and lush.
We arrived at Eco Parque Don Pastor and it was like an oasis after the desert like surroundings we’d been in the past few weeks.
Karin & Ricardo met us at the gate and got us settled after showing us around. They have quite an idyllic spot here about less than 5 km / 3 mi from the city. The final 1.5 km to get here is good dirt road and they are on a little hill with views of the countryside and mountains in the distance. They have a swimming pool with a restaurant and it being Sunday, there were a half dozen families here enjoying the pool and the breeze in the shade. A dip in the pool was exactly what we needed.
After cooling off in the cold water, we sat in the shade reading and then ordered some food to share from the restaurant. Karin’s eldest son, Raul (13) brought it to us right where sat and we didn’t have to cook in the “oven” that was Tigger that night.
After sunset it did cool off some and we did not feel we needed to turn on the AC but did have both fans running to enable us to sleep. It was a very quiet night and we felt good the next morning.
Doug had a few things he wanted taken care of on Tigger so after his run, Ricardo took him into Villamontes to find a body shop to get the repairs done and Fran hung back at the campsite catching up on photos and blogging.
Doug managed to get everything and more done that day: repairing the outside cubby door (which was coming loose), fixing the daytime running lights attachment (it too was loose), reconfigured the jerry can holders (we’d lost one locked tie down),
go to the market, go to a cell phone store for a phone chip and wash the truck.
When the latter was being done he noticed that there was a seam on Tigger that had popped open so after the truck was cleaned, he returned to the body shop and had that repaired too – a very long but successful day for him.
That day it was nowhere near as warm as the day before; it probably barely reached 22C / 72F and it was partly cloudy. Karin told us it might rain over night lightly but that never transpired.
We awoke Tuesday to cloudy skies and even cooler – the high today was barely 18C / 64F and apparently it’s going to continue to drop so the weekend hot weather was a freak occurrence. We decided to hang here another day and make the run to Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia’s largest city) in one day on Wednesday so we could have a chill day before a long drive: 450 km / 280 mi. Karin mentioned that it could take 6-8 hours depending on traffic but that the road was all paved.
We awoke to pouring rain and packed up. The parking area is red sand/clay as is the road out of the Eco Parque so it was slow going to avoid any slipping off the road. We stopped to get gas at a station we’d read about on iOverlander that offered foreigners a “special” price (if you recall from last year, gasoline and diesel is subsidized by the government with two prices posted: one for locals and one for foreigners which is nearly triple the local price). She did not want to help us so we carried on to a tienda that sold gas at a good price in 20 litre jerry cans. We filled up and continued north to the biggest city in Bolivia.
Before leaving Argentina, Fran had reached out via WhatsApp to the helpful daughter of the couple whose campground we’d stayed at for almost a month in Sucre last August/September. Carolina is a doctor and last year helped us take care of some annual medical matters that needed doing. Carolina was actually currently on vacation in Norway but, as always, more than willing to help, even from a world away! She knew a dentist (the one she uses as she travels to Santa Cruz a lot), a place to get blood work done and a place to get the dreaded colonoscopy that Fran was due for and Doug would get his done a year early so we’d be on the same schedule.
Upon arriving in Santa Cruz, we wanted to check out the hospital and see what we needed to do to get appointments. We’d already WhatsApp’d the dentist and had cleaning appointments set up for Thursday (the next day). We parked fairly close to the hospital on the curbside of a busy street and Doug went off to find the clinic and see what he could do.
Well he was very successful;
- he found the lab for bloodwork;
- saw a doctor to have an issue he’d had taken care of (he’d had some major abdominal pain about two weeks ago from which he nearly passed out from) and the Doctor did an ultra sound to determine he had kidney stones so he prescribed some medicine; and
- found the video endoscopy office and arranged for appointments for colonoscopies for Friday afternoon and was given the prescription for the meds required to make that happen.
Upon returning to Fran in the truck, we found a street wild camp not too far from the dental office and settled for the night.
Now if any of you have had a colonoscopy, you know the drill for the prep work – you need a bathroom close by! So… we looked at hotels in the chains Doug belongs to and saw a good deal at a Marriott. The issue though was going to be parking – it’s usually underground and of course, Tigger is too tall.
So Thursday morning, Doug walked off to do a few things: check out the Marriott, find a bank and go see the part of town that sells tires and Fran went to do laundry around the corner at a self serve place and the plan was to meet at the clinic for our bloodwork. After that we walked to the dentist and had our teeth cleaned
As this was done separately, Doug went first and went to get Tigger while Fran had her teeth cleaned. As he drove to pick her up, he was struggling to make Tigger do turns; when he stopped to get her, he took a look and saw that the tie rod on the passenger side was not attached! There was a man standing on the sidewalk and we asked about where the closest mechanic might be and he didn’t know of any. As soon as we got the in the truck, we saw him chatting with the man in the little shop there and he came back and told us that if we turned left ahead, and went 3-4 blocks there was one according to the other gentlemen.
Lucky for us it was in about two blocks instead of four and the man took one look and said he could help but when he took off the tire he confirmed that it was the tie rod and he wasn’t sure he could find one – well even luckier for us, we had a spare in the back! Within twenty minutes we were on our way. Phew!
So our next errand was to check into the tires Doug had looked at. It’s amazing how many tire places there are here in Santa Cruz and for some reason all in the same part of town.
After discussing, researching and talking price with a few vendors, we opted to buy four new tires (that used one we bought in Jujuy actually had some hairline cracks in it) and use the one we bought a few months ago as a spare. We bought four Cooper Discoverer ATR tires for a good price, had them balanced and aligned in about three hours (Tigger is now all 265’s all around). It was quite cool still today and hanging around while they did most of this manually, was cold!
It turned out when Doug checked that there was no all-day parking for us at the Marriott but we could see on maps.me that there were a few parking lots very close by. So the plan was to check them out and if one of them worked, we’d make a booking online using Doug’s points.
We were in luck again, the biggest one worked but the attendant could not give us a price for overnight parking as the lot closes each night but he assured us it was not expensive. We could judge by the hourly rate, that even if they charged us that, it would not be too bad. We parked, made the booking, packed some knapsacks and walked over to check in. As we left the lot, the attendant told us to check back tomorrow on the price and about leaving on Saturday.
This is a very new hotel and it’s very modern with high speed internet, free breakfast and happy hour for silver members (which Doug is). The room was spacious with a king bed and a big bathroom.
We decided to go out for dinner as there was a mall nearby with a Hard Rock and a TGI Fridays. We chose the former, enjoyed two for one drinks and shared some nachos. While we were sitting there, we heard from the doctor’s office that tomorrow’s appointment would have to be cancelled due to an emergency! What?!? We got a hotel for the express purpose of dealing with the prep matters easily. Doug continued to correspond with them via WhatsApp and somehow they found a replacement doctor to see us but instead of at 4 in the afternoon, we now had appointments for 7 am and that meant beginning the prep regiment during the night – oh well it was better than having to wait until Monday and get another hotel – another first world problem, eh?
So upon returning to the hotel, we went to bed immediately figuring since we had to begin the regiment at midnight, we’d better try and get some shuteye.
We got through all that, were up at 6 and caught a cab to the hospital at 6:30. As we stood outside the locked building, a man drove up in a white SUV and introduced himself as our doctor; he’d come in special just for us during his vacation to accommodate our unique situation – doubt that would happen in a first world country.
Dr Sulez took Fran in first and Doug next and we were out of there just past 9:30 with excellent results for both of us. We caught a cab back to the Marriott and caught the tail end of the free executive hot breakfast. 🙂
Doug went over to where Tigger was parked and sorted out the parking issue/price. Turns out they are not open Saturdays but we were given a number to call when we want to leave and someone will come over and let us out – only in Latin America!
We spent the rest of the day enjoying the fast internet and relaxing. Around 4 we thought we’d check out the Jacuzzi the front desk had told us about; we changed into our bathing suits and went to the fourth floor to check it out: it was outside….so after grabbing towels from the gym Fran walked over and put one foot in and it was not hot but cool; okay we’re not getting in there. Too bad it was a lovely pool area with a nice view:
So tonight we partook of happy hour (part of Doug’s elite Marriot status) for dinner, and then used a coupon the front desk gave us for a free cocktail in the bar and we were set for dinner. We are quite tired after last night’s “adventure” getting ready for our “procedures”.
We managed to reach both our kids during our time at the Marriott and we are very pleased since the next few weeks, we feel internet could be scarce as we travel further east into Bolivia and then into western Brazil.
So midday Saturday we checked out of the Marriott and made our way a little south towards the one actual campground in the Santa Cruz area – many overlanders make a stop there. Right across the road is an oil change shop that was also on iOverlander, so we stopped in there first, they actually had our 5W30 oil and we had that taken care of. The Landhaus Restaurant has a grassy camping area out back with access to bathrooms with hot showers, decent Wii, water and power. Sergio, the owner of the restaurant, welcomed us, got us set up with the help of some staff to set up power and we enjoyed a nice late lunch in his restaurant. There was a unimog parked in the camping area as well and we met Johan later (his wife was not feeling well) and had a fairly quiet night. The temperatures are warming up again and we’re enjoyed the warmth without extreme heat.
Sunday we wanted to do some laundry including our floor mats, but it seems Johan’s wife “reserved” the machine but couldn’t use it right away as employee was using it; she had two loads and would not allow us to “butt” in the middle with our one but wanted us to wait until she was done. So while she washed her clothes (each load takes over an hour!) we decided to catch the bus to a supermarket and save having to stop tomorrow on our way north out of Santa Cruz. The bus cost us 2 Bolivianos each – 28¢!
We did our shopping and took a cab back to the Landhaus where we learned that the machine had not started for her and she was only now half way through her first load so Fran decided to do a hand washing as it was now 11:00 and if she had to wait until after one nothing would dry.
We did a few chores around the rig, did some reading and spent some time speaking with the owner of the property, Rudy who is the brother in law of the restaurant owner. He is a forestry engineer (now retired) and a font of knowledge on this part of Bolivia, the Amazon and Brazil. He took us on the tour of the property which he has reforested with many different types of trees and helped us plan our route to the border and into the Pantanal of Brazil.
So Monday morning we got an early start after dawn and got through the City of Santa Cruz in about an hour. Then it was paved road all the way to the first of six missions we will visit:
Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos – Bolivia
The region between the Spanish and Portugese territories in South America was largely unexplored at the end of the 17th century. The Jesuits were sent by the Spanish Crown and set up a total of eleven missions and were there for 76 years. They built churches in a unique style that combined both native and European baroque styles. The people of Chiquitania, known as Chiquitos, were taught music as a means of conversion. The missions were self-sufficient, had thriving economies and were virtually antonomous from the Spanish Crown.
The order was expelled from Spanish territories in 1767 and most of the missions were abandoned. These missions are unique because the settlements and culture have survived largely intact. They are not “ruins” but more like “living history”. When the Swiss Jesuit Hans Roth arrived in the area in 1972, a large restoration project began. Six of these missions were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1990.
- San Javier – This mission was built between 1749 and 1752 in the baroque style (as most of them were). It was restored between 1987 and 1993. It is a very cute little town most of which is designed in the style of the mission; this was the first mission in Bolivia in 1691. This one cost 30 BOB to visit. You tour some rooms with photos, statues and pieces of the church itself.
We also visited the park called Rocks of the Apostles
There were many small villages along the Mission Route that reminded us of driving through Botswana:
- Concepcion – This mission was built between 1752 and 1753 and was restored in 1982. We arrived here later in the afternoon and just wanted to veg a bit so we parked outside an old futbol stadium for the night. Just after we arrived, band practice started on the field and after about an hour they moved about 500 m away to another location where we could still hear them but it only last until about an hour after dark. We drove into town Tuesday morning to visit the mission which is quite ornate. This one cost 50BOB to tour. This was probably out favourite town of the six due to its buildings having been kept in the same baroque style as the mission and church.
- San Igancio – This mission was built between 1749 and 1752 and was restored between 1987 and 1993. We got here before noon on Tuesday and it the only one of the six we’ll see that is not a UNESCO site (something to do with restoration). At this one we only toured inside the church itself and it was free. We then found the gas station in town that fills foreign tanks at local price and filled up before carrying on to the circle route.
- San Miguel – Now the dirt roads began and it was 38 km to this village. This mission was founded in 1721. Its church is considered the most historically accurate of all the restored churches. Unfortunately, the church was closed so we only got outside photos and did a short walk around the village before heady to a nearby small lake to spend the night.
Here we had been told we might get a glimpse of capibaras around dusk but they did not show their faces to us, however, there was an abundance of bird life.
- San Rafael – This is the second oldest mission and it was founded in 1696. It is also a small town but we found it didn’t quite have the charms of San Miguel.
- Santa Ana – This mission was founded in 1755 and is the only mission founded by an individual missionary, Fr. Julian Nogler and the only settlement that has its complete original church still intact. The church itself was actually not built until after the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767. This town is very tiny with barely 300 people living here. It does have one other attraction though: a stone snake. It is considered an archeological find and the story behind it is more legend than fact.
Between Concepcion and San Ignacio we spotted a few capibara’s on a small “island” in a roadside lake/pond:
A bit later one we spotted a Jabiru stork in another lake/pond but by the time we parked and walked over to the water, a herd of cows had descended on the lake and the stork flew away.
The weather is definitely hot during the days now; Monday night it cooled off into the teens C but during the day reaches 30 without much effort.
We returned to the town of San Ignacio, filled up again as well as our Jerry cans (not a lot of gas on the 300 km / 200 mi to the border) and found an informal campground beside a laundry/hotel run by a Swiss man and his Bolivian wife. Rudy was actually away but his wife, Miriam, welcome us and had us pull in. It’s really only enough room for one rig our size or two small vans. They are actually in the process of converting another lot they own nearby into an overlander’s spot.
It was getting quite hot out by this time and after showers and walking a bit, we spent the afternoon chilling. Today, July 31st is the town’s 271st anniversary – we’d seen some activities when we passed through yesterday but today is the main day. Accordingly, this mean much revelry overnight – we heard music until about 4 am!
We decided to hang here another day since we’d been driving for three days and would need at least two more driving days to the border with not much to see.
Fran was cleaning some of the rig this morning and discovered that the window in the coach door had slipped down about a half inch so we took it out and Doug jerry rigged a used sanding block to secure it better in place.
Today it was very, very wind – hot but windy. Miriam told us it is the start of the “winds of August” so there is dust (and garbage) blowing everywhere. As we plan to leave this country in a few days, we wanted to see about spending the rest of our Bolivianos so we went looking for a few things but didn’t find anything we wanted.
That night it was quieter and not quite so hot. Friday we awoke to more wind and much cooler, reasonable temperatures.
We had a last hot shower, packed up the rig and were out of San Ignacio before 7:30 am to start the almost 300 km / 200 mi driving to the border town of San Matias. This road is ALL dirt, with lots of washboard but one really good graded section before halfway. We had planned to make only 170 km today but the going was better than we hoped and we made it the entire distance despite about six military checkpoints (where you just have to “register” your name and vehicle license with them) and one police checkpoint.
We saw many caracara birds, two different toucans, lots and lots of egrets, many herons, a fox, one caiman, 3 coatis and one rhea during the drive – sorry no photos cause as soon as you stop the vehicle, they take off! We did also see four more jabiru storks and managed to get a few shots of two of those by doing a drive by photo shot:
There is one gas station in the city if San Matias and we’d read that you can only get the locals price by filling Jerry cans, not getting gas right into your tank. We’d also read that the station closes at 4 pm and that’s when we got there and we saw the police putting chains up across the entry way. We asked a few locals if any enterprising locals sold gas by the litre and they pointed to a white house a half block away.
Doug pulled in there and Fran walked to the bank to get more money so we could fill the tank (the three Jerry cans are already full – gas is cheaper here than in Brazil so we wanted to get as much as we could). She was selling it at first for 5 BOB per litre (this is what she told Doug when he bought the first 58 litres, but when we bought sixty more, she wanted 6 BOB a litre so instead of paying 300 BOB we thought we owed we split the difference of 60 BOB that she wanted and paid her an extra 30.
Next stop was a gomeria to get our tires aired back up as we knew the main roads in Brazil are for the most part paved. We had him check the spare too and it was low! WTH? That is the $400 Goodyear tire we bought back in April that we only had on the truck for about ten days and then it became our spare when we purchased the four tires in Santa Cruz. He aired it up and we will check again tomorrow morning before leaving.
We went into town to again, trying to spend our remaining currency, Fran bought some of her blood pressure meds at 1 BOB a pill! She tried to get more but he only had 54 so she bought 50 of them. Doug bought some beer and pop and we went to the park we planned to camp arriving just before sunset.
It was a super dark and quiet final night in Bolivia, a nice way to end our two weeks here. Before leaving Doug checked the spare and it was low again so we returned to the gomeria and he replaced the valve stem.
We are glad we reentered this country to see the things we did, do the things we took care of (and cheaply – those colonoscopies we got cost $200 US each!) and remember how much we love the people of this country.
Adios Bolivia – after 1491 km / 927 mi, we are finally finished exploring your country.