This article was published in 2005. Our trip to explore Bolivia’s rivers was perhaps the finest white water trip I’ve ever been on. Amazing rivers, scenery and culture – but best of all, great times shared with great friends.
The Tibet of the Americas
– White Water Bolivia
“Where am I? Oh man, my head is fuzzy. I seem to be in a rather chic Salsa club, wow those folk can really dance. But why do I keep walking into walls? Must be something to do with this stuff I’m drinking. Why am I panting and out of breath? Who are all these people with me? That’s Andy, Chris, Kev etc…the usual boating crowd…but who are the well dressed folk who’ve actually washed? Oh right, I remember…they’re from the Bolivian Ministry of Tourism. What’s it all about? What in the name of surreal experiences am I doing at high altitude in a trendy Bolivan nightclub, beered up to my eyeballs with posh people? Oh, it’s all coming back to me now. I’m on an EXPEDITION.”
Why Bolivia? It doesn’t appear on any whitewater wish lists that we’ve ever seen and when the place was first suggested, we weren’t entirely clear which corner of the globe it could be found in. Reaching for an atlas, we had a hurried self-taught Geography lesson. We discovered that Bolivia lurks in the centre of South America and it’s the size of France and Spain combined. It’s landlocked but contains Lake Titicaca, a vast inland sea. Titicaca and the capital La Paz are perched at a dizzying altitude of 13000 feet above sea level, on a desert plain called the Altiplano (‘High Plain’). The Andes are close to hand, with peaks stretching 20000 feet into space. Behind the Andes and three vertical miles below is something quite large, called the Amazon Rainforest. All rather impressive, but the most intriguing thing was numerous blue and brown lines wiggling all over the atlas page…rivers and contour lines combined. This was good enough for us. We booked flights.
The following Easter. We stepped onto a plane, leaving behind a cold and agonisingly dry whitewater season back home. We then stepped off the plane, to be confronted by the searing heat of Bolivia at the tail end of the rainy season. By some unseen logistical miracle, our eight creek boats had turned up too and our two vehicles and drivers were waiting for us. After hasty introductions with Gary and Renaldo, we loaded up their 4WD’s and sped straight out of town to find ourselves a river.
Culture shock! Lonely Planet had breathlessly described Bolivia as the ‘Tibet of the Americas’ and they may well have a point. We were indeed breathless (no oxygen!) and our atlas page assumed dramatic 3D real-life proportions as we drove up above 15000 feet, over the Andes. When we weren’t fixated in terror by the tiny gap between our wheels and the cliff ledge, we were gobsmacked by the locals. Women wore traditional dress of bowler hats and garishly coloured shawls slung across their shoulders, usually with a baby and/ or the week’s shopping propped efficiently underneath. Llamas were ten a penny, big hairy loping things not unlike a cross between sheep and giraffe. They looked pretty cool, and made for great knitwear and steaks. If you got close to them they spat at you with impressive range and accuracy, not cool. Anyway, you get the gist…Bolivia was something very different.
Enough of culture, we were there for the paddling. En route down to the jungle, we detoured to inspect the Rio Unduavi; one of our drivers reckoned had been paddled before. It looked terrifying, falling out of the sky…what exactly had we got ourselves into? Even more worrying, the river valley was improbably steep-sided; we realised that getting in and out of Bolivian rivers was going to be a mission in itself. Our pre-planning had involved identifying vaguely intriguing rivers using charts obtained from the US Military. These small-scale maps only depicted objects visible from Mars…so I suppose that we shouldn’t really been surprised to discover that Bolivian ‘road-side’ boating heavily involved ropes, machetes and vertigo.
Back on the road, in darkness. Kevin – the team’s doom-monger – was helpful enough to inform us that we were driving along the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’, based on the number of vehicles that fall off every week. Just then, our Landrover slid off the road. We’re here to tell the tale as a luckily-placed cliff stopped us from toppling over completely. Later on in the trip after crossing it numerous times, we’d become immune to the WMDR and joked merrily about it. That was, until the day when we were press-ganged into a rope-hauling crew, retrieving corpses from a car wreck down in the abyss. That wasn’t funny, and they didn’t smell too good.
We warmed up on the easy Rio Huaranilla and progressed to the Rio Choro. Accessing the Choro involved hauling boats up and down the cliffs, in sweltering jungle heat. I learned that leaning on a tree swarming with bull ants is a bad idea, and Andy L gashed his hand on a rock, putting him out of boating action for much of the trip (no worries, he’s a bit of a museum connoisseur anyway). The Choro proved to be a superb Grade 5 gorge, more than enough to justify the entrance price. However the pattern established here was to become familiar; fantastic boating coupled with access logistics strenuous enough to generate more than one hissy fit. Ever seen a grown man fling his beloved kayak off a cliff in beat-down despair?
Staring at the Rio Unduavi again, it still looked heinous. Some of my ‘friends’ salivated at the super-steep gnarl, worrying. I whipped out my GPS gadget and proved that the river below was insanely steep and we were all going to die. Phew, sanity prevailed and we launched a few miles downstream. Our Rio Unduavi mission was on, what a river! Kevin inspected the first gorge and confidently dismissed it as “flat”. Whilst being smeared all over it, I recalled that everything looks flat from a hundred metres above! All good fun. A few exhilarating hours later, we found ourselves fighting for eddies…we whipped out the walkie-talkie. High above us, our drivers confirmed that the gorge ahead was Grade 6 and unportageable. Two hours of daylight left, a perfect point to call it a day and climb out. Except that, we couldn’t. We headed off in various directions up scree slopes, and one by one we all ground to a halt. The problem was that the scree was steep and terminated in cliffs. We were stuck. And it was now dark. Oops. Blessed salvation came unexpectedly. A Bolivian fellow and his family popped up from nowhere and ran off with our boats. Yes, they ran right up the scree which we couldn’t climb. They returned and guided each of us to the road, one by one. The relief of reaching safety was tempered by the humiliation of being rescued by a small children and grannies, none of them taller than our chests. Gary had been pretty concerned about us, and presumably wondered about the calibre of the men he was driving around. “Guys, I have to ask…is this normal?”
Somewhere up north, we gained permission to sleep in a school. The school kids were outside with their faces pressed to the window, entertained and bewildered by our cooking efforts. We were just as bewildered, cooking for ourselves was a new one on us. We discovered; vacuum-packed pre-cooked expedition meals, bad, dried expedition meals, really bad, Andy Mc’s Scottish porridge, terrible. We now knew for sure that we were on a proper expedition; the clues were the inedible food and the scary fact that ‘Lonely Planet’ didn’t know where we were. We did locate our river though; the following morning found us all white-faced and bug-eyed on the Rio Camata. This sizeable river was a bit too sizeable, with a slight excess of water and a tendency to head downhill quite vigorously. The Camata was certainly democratic; everybody got pasted sooner or later. Amazing stuff…break out and brace for the ‘kick’ of the current, pray it carries you past those holes and deposits you in another eddy…because you sure won’t get any say in the matter! By the end of the day we were shamelessly portaging as much as paddling, and a little rain overnight meant that the following day was even more humbling.
Our bruised egos needed a massage; and we got it when we explored the nearby Rio Calaya. On paper, it was a ludicrously steep no-go but the Rivergods smiled upon us. We discovered a perfect water level and endless clean drops, adding up to one of the best sections we’ve ever done. Bring it on!
We’re none of us survivalists; sitting in a puddle in a rain sodden jungle trying to light a fire isn’t our idea of fun. But there we were and so it was. This was our mission to conquer the Rio Zongo, but it was conquering us. A fabulous journey from La Paz had seen us climb to lung-shredding altitudes, glaciers almost touching the road. There was barely time to admire, the bottom dropped out of the road and it plunged 12000 feet in switchbacks. At the road’s end, the Zongo looked gorged-up and pretty feisty. Hmm. We loaded the boats for several days and followed a self-appointed local guide into the gorge. An hour later he was still claiming “Just twenty minutes further”. Harsh words were muttered as we abandoned him, climbing down a gully to the river. With minutes of daylight left, we had to ferry across the river, lash our boats to trees and then wade, armpit deep, to a tiny camp spot. Directly downstream, a rather lumpy Grade 5 rapid made us wonder what we’d taken on. Perfect, just perfect. Did I mention, it was raining, too?
…and they all lived happily ever after. The following morning really did turn out perfect, if we forget the porridge. The fear of a few days spent blubbing with terror whilst running unportageable gnarl had made us seriously consider jibbing out (yup…12000 feet up and over the Andes again) but our fears proved ungrounded. We paddled around the first corner; the gorge opened out at once, the rapids were friendly and all was well! We knocked off the Zongo in one outstanding day, gradually easing through the Grades from 5 to 2 along its 35 mile length. Our lunch stop provided a Comedy Moment. Bizarrely, our sweaty thermals were swarmed by millions of bees. We had to abandon them and make a run for the boats. Ten miles downstream, we were still extracting angry bees from under our sprayskirts. How we laughed.
Back in La Paz, it was time for reflection. Over llama steaks and ‘Pascena’ (the local excuse for beer), we counted up the scores. In a hectic fortnight, we had managed to paddle on all except two days, enjoying (or surviving, depends upon your perspective) nine different rivers. At least two of the rivers were probably first descents but more importantly, the quality of the paddling was usually very high indeed. Put another way, Bolivian paddling is fantastic…just remember take the GPS, rope and machete! Anyway, the ‘Pascena’ flowed and the evening took a weird turn. The ‘Viceministerio de Turismo’ turned up and interviewed us about Bolivia’s potential for river-running tourism. It then emerged that our driver Gary was her boss! We’d been sleeping rough and sharing awful porridge with the ‘Director-General de Turismo’. My memory gets hazy from that point, ‘Pascena’ isn’t very strong but sure packs a punch when combined with altitude. We were dragged by our Ministerial chums off to tour the nightlife of La Paz…which is where I think this story began…
Mark Rainsley paddled with Kevin Francis, Marcus Holborn, Andy Levick, Andy McMahon, Ferdinand Steinvorth, Chris Wheeler and Simon Wiles.
More info on boating in Bolivia can be found at www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk