Killin’ Time in Cochabamba & Villa Tunari

Because of our bad bus luck in Uyuni, we lost a full day and only had part of a day/night to work with. With such limited time, it was hard to decide what to do. We were in Uyuni and needed to end up, by a certain day, in La Paz so that we could immediately make our way to Copacabana. Thankfully, in conversations with locals, we learned about Cochabamba and Villa Tunari.

After finishing our beautiful experience in the Salt Flats, we returned to the village with about an hour and a half to spare before the bus took off for Cochabamba. We tried a street hamburger, which was pretty good but came with a nice helping of heartburn, and a street empanada, an utter disappointment compared to the ones in Chile.

The ride to Cochabamba

We got on the bus and quickly came to the conclusion it’d be a hard ride. It was a regular local bus, not the slightly more comfortable ones that have a bathroom and seats that recline a couple of degrees. And, it was darn old. In the middle of desert land, we were feeling the brunt of the Bolivian nights. Not that we had much space anyways, but Teresa and I sat as humanely close to each other as possible. Any little fragment of body heat was savored and necessary. The man sitting next to me was a super friendly Bolivian. Finally heading home, he had just finished a one month job in Potosi, one of the biggest mining towns. He and his brother travel around the country building roads in mines so that the miners can move around. Although pitch black, it was only 8 at night so I stayed up and talked with him for a couple of hours about life, work, etc.

These conversations are always so culturally revealing, and truly make me appreciate the life I have and blessings I’ve been given. Although he has worked in Uyuni mines many, many times, he has never had the opportunity to visit the Salt Flats (considered a “top-see” in this world) just 30 minutes outside the village. In fact, in my 2 weeks I had seen more of his country than he has in his life. Of course, I didn’t say that but it caused a deep internal reflection.

The route to Cochabamba had no road and, wow, was it bumpy. More than a few times everyone in the bus got some serious air. Even with your butt in the seat, the entire ride was over deep divots in the land. Considering this is a road frequently traveled by workers going to the mines, I’d sure be nice to reward them with a more comfortable ride. Eventually, somehow, I fell asleep, body clenched tight in an effort to maintain any heat I had.

sunriseThe man woke me up about 3am when we arrived to Oruro, said it was so nice to meet us, and directed us across the road to the bus on its way to Cochabamba. We were in down-to-the-minute perfect timing. The bus was getting ready to leave when it saw our bus pull over. It waited to see if anyone needed to hop on, and we did! It was about 4-5 hours to Cochabamba, and this bus was so amazingly warm. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to get on a bus.

We quickly fell asleep and I fazed back in about 6am. Based on time, we were supposed to almost be there. Why weren’t we moving? Well, a big boulder fell off the mountain and no one could pass. Yes, it was a traffic jam on the mountain. Yes, our luck in Bolivia with buses was so good we should have bought a lottery ticket.

DSC03255On the plus side, I got to see an incredible sunrise. This area was re-entering the tropical part of Bolivia and the landscape was green mountainous. After a couple of hours, some trucks had come and removed the boulder (not sure how) and we finally arrived. Hungry, we found breakfast right away. The man on the bus had told me about a traditional “treat” in Cochabamba, api con pastel. Basically, it’s a warm drink, cooked by the many vendors on the side of the street, that contains milk, different types of corn, and sugar, served with a fresh fried dough-pastry sprinkled with powdered sugar. Woooow, now that was delicious.

Villa Tunari

After breakfast we walked around a bit and checked out the thriving street markets. We wanted to stretch our legs a bit before hopping on another 3 hour bus to Villa Tunari, a jungle village where we’d spend the night. The bus ride was another old, regular bus mainly used for local transport to and from villages. A young girl with her young child was quite interested in learning about Teresa and I. She was married and on her way to work at her mother-in-law’s restaurant in one of the tropical villages. She works there every Saturday to Tuesday. It was fun to chat with her but the one thing that sticks out most in my mind is this: her son, 2, finished his big soda bottle and went to throw it out the window, he missed the open window, and mid-air, she changed its direction and batted it out for him!! Although I’ve seen it a million times here, my jaw still drops and I lose my train of thought every time it happens. My heart hurts at the lack of education the government gives its people around this topic, especially considering they’re so environmentally blessed.

Along the way we got had to go through narcotics inspection since that area is a heavy trafficking route. As foreigners, I sure got the questions as to why Teresa and I were there :)

DSC03165As with our trend, the 3 hour bus ride turned into a 6 hour bus ride because of complications. When we arrived, it was already pretty much dark. Like in Copacabana, our late arrival squashed plans for that day. We found a hostel and walked around as much as we could while we could still see. Here, all the restaurants lined the main street and all offered the exact same meals :) The village didn’t feel like it could contain more than 300 people, but I guess it actually has a population around 2,000. After walking the strip, we chose a restaurant that was grilling its fish out  in front. We sat down, ordered, and just relaxed. It was fun to think about our trip thus far.

DSC03197The food came and, hands down, it was the best meal in Bolivia. The grilled fish was so tasty and came with rice, a grilled yuca, a grilled banana, and a fresh salad. With nothing to do that night we just enjoyed our dinner and chatted a bit with the owner of the restaurant/cook. She had the cutest little girl that was rolling around in one of those play-chairs with wheels. She must have thought Teresa and I looked interesting because she couldn’t stop staring at us!

DSC03155In the middle of the night, it started pouring. It continued all through the night and, in the morning when we woke up, it showed no signs of stopping. It was tremendously heavy, which meant that there was no way we’d be hiking in the tropical forest, looking at monkeys, unique trees, and other critters. Our plan, and reason to come, had been to spend the day hiking around this area. That obviously flowed right into the river with all the rain. So, basically, we traveled 6 hours on bus for a yummy dinner.

Back to Cochabamba

DSC03209We had breakfast at the local market, an egg sandwich with some tea, and picked up some fruits for the bus ride back. Since there was nothing we could do there, we hopped back on the bus back to Cochabamba. Thankfully, this bus ride not only went according to schedule (only 4 hours, yay!), but it also offered us some entertainment. About 1/2 way, at the narcotics checkpoint, a man came on the bus. He started talking about health, exercise, and all that good stuff. I thought maybe he worked with the government because, definitely, for a country filled with produce, there is a lack of education around health. Soda, sugar, fried foods in the street are everywhere. Soon, however, it became clear he was a salesman. And, wow, did he have it. It was interesting to see that (almost) all salesmen have the same mannerisms and tone of voice. He was selling health foods like frog juice (eeeeew) and a bunch of other things for weight loss, memory, tapeworms, and virtually every illness known to Bolivia. He went on, and on, and on for the rest of the trip, 2 full hours! It was quite hilarious… and these poor people with tiny salaries were buying it up like crazy. Towards the end, they started (kind of) joking about how they needed something to get rid of him… because he stripped all their money and had solutions to everything. haha.

DSC03240Back in town, we decided to check out the funicular that took people up to the Virgin Mary statue. It was, up until recently I think, the biggest one in the world. Up at the top, the city view was very impressive. Afterwards we had 4 hours before the bus back to La Paz. We wandered around, looking at the cute plazas, and then went in search of something to eat. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and, like in most Latin American cities, everything was closed. We stopped people, asking for where to eat, and no one knew. Only ice cream shops were open. Finally, we got directed to a pizza place. Hmmm, it was more like a fast food, Mc Donalds’s playland minus the toys kind of pizza place. Not good, by any means, but it seemed our only option. After eating, and extremely unsatisfied, we still had 2 hours and didn’t know what to do. I asked one of the workers if there was a bar in the area (because, restaurants were obviously getting me nowhere). He cheerfully replied, “oh, we serve beer!!” and I diverted by making the excuse we wanted to ” try different places while here.”

SAM_1546He sent us down the block to a suuuuuper cute cafe/restaurant! What?! How the heck did I ask a million people for a restaurant and they all sent us to ice cream shops and that sterile pizza place when this place was in the saaaame area?! In the end, it’s because they all think tourists want the neon lights and that kind of stuff, not a cute, local, kind of place. They were trying to be nice, but, ugh, that was frustrating!

Sitting down, we ordered a mouth-watering hot chocolate and jealously looked at the menu. It all sounded soooo good! The waiter was so nice and we just sat and chilled as we waited. Since we had 2 hours, we did order a bruschetta, only because, although no longer hungry, we wanted something satisfying.

In the end, while not what we planned, it turned out to be a fun little excursion. We closed the books with the night bus back La Paz, excited for our trip to Copacabana in the morning.

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