Chope Piesta, Bull-teasing and Pink River Dolphins

Trip Start Dec 03, 2012
Trip End Aug 25, 2013

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, May 27, 2013

"There's not much to do in Trinidad" warned Geijs, from Ruta Verde. We were heading to Trinidad, in the Bolivian Amazon, to catch the Reina de Enin, a passenger boat plying the Mamore and Ibarra rivers, where we hoped to see pink river dolphins. Our first ever overnight bus was taking us to Trinidad from Santa Cruz and it seemed sensible to have a recovery night in Trinidad before embarking. No point paying good money when a day of grumping and fighting is predicted, was my logic.

True enough, we arrived exhausted (think 10 hours of loud violent films, bumpy dirt roads, freezing AC and no food or drink - no toilet) and for the first time, I was sick, so we made our way quickly to the hotel Campanario, Trinidad's finest (there are 2 others). After lunch we walked one block to the town square, to find a huge procession of dancers in various types of traditional dress. This went on all day long and for the next two days as well.

The procession, called Chope Piesta is an annual event, to celebrate the founding of Trinidad 300 years ago. Groups of dancers from all the local schools and colleges, businesses, community associations etc are given a particular traditional dance to do. The church is invariably involved as well, with a couple of rows of dignitaries ranged in front of it, and the main dances taking place in front. There is also a Miss Chope Piesta for various age groups and organisations.

The dances ranged from (to our eyes) traditional tribal dances with fabulous feathered head-dresses (nowadays thankfully made with imitation feathers), to elaborate Spanish-style swirly satin gowns. One group of young teenaged girls that stopped in front of us were very keen on Thomas, and started chatting (one came from America and spoke English). They were wearing masks and carrying whips to punish Judas in their dance. So, no, we didn't really understand what any of it was about, but it was certainly spectacular and a great way to spend the day.

That evening we tried to see the bull "teasing", but it wasn't until the following day. However, it gave us the perfect excuse to try out Trinidad's main form of transport - the mortorbike! Trinidad is full of motorbikes, five or six abreast, never going particularly fast, but always fully laden. It's not unusual to see a family with a kid up front, then dad, then a toddler wedged in place by mum, who may be carrying a baby in a car seat. Helmets don't exist. We climbed aboard two bikes, one carrying Paul and Izzy, one with Tom and I, and whizzed back to our hotel. Tinidad suffers from flooding every year, so there are large open drains at the edge of every street, and I guess bikes are just more convenient.

The following morning we were picked up from our hotel and taken to Puerto Balivan, on the Ibarre River, to board the Reina de Enin. The boat was like 'The African Queen' on a catamaran. We had two cabins, each technically a triple, with a double bed and a single bunk above. The toilet, sink and shower were all in one little room with a drainage hole in the floor. It was all very charming, though by the end of the week we were longing for soft comfy chairs and a bit of space.

For the first 4 days of our trip we were the only paying passengers, and we quickly got to know the ship's crew. At that point Barbara, the ship's Belgian Captain, was in Trinidad dancing at the Chope Piesta, so the only English speaker was a young man named Marcelo, recently arrived from La Paz, who was our guide/translator. There was also Mario, the ships pilot, Loretta the cheery plump cook and her 2-year old toddler, Michael, Lotetta's 19 year old son and the ships dogsbody, and Victor, a local guide. We also learnt a new game of dice, played endlessly on board.

Soon after we boarded, we were taken on an excursion along a tributary of the Ibarre, and caught glimpses of pink river dolphins, as well as excellent views of sloths and capybara, plus red howler monkeys and loads of birds. An otter popped his head up right next to the boat, and we chased giant Ringed kingfishers up and down the river ahead of us. That afternoon the boat moved further up the Ibarre river, past a couple of tiny villages and a small naval base. We hung around in the hammocks on the top deck, birding and reading (no internet, of course!).

The following day started with a boat trip to a lagoon, one of many in the area, connected by thin streams hidden in the flooded forest. We were there at the end of the rainy season, when the water level had dropped by about 3 metres, with another 4-5m to go before the end of the dry season, so travel by boat was still possible in most places. The lagoon was a huge expanse of water, an old ox-bow lake, surrounded by grassy reed-beds and a rise of higher forested ground where we walked to see some gigantic spiky Victoria Water Lilies.

We spent some time in the boat with the engine of, just watching the dolphins swimming around us, and again several times later from the Reina de Enin and in a dug-out canoe that we were allowed to paddle without a guide. The water was so cloudy you couldn't see through it more than a few millimetres, so we could only see the dolphins when they surfaced, which they do very quietly and only exposing a small part of their body, quite unlike the bottlenosed dolphins we saw in Mexico. Sometimes we could see the water moving and fish jumping, which told us where the dolphins were hunting, and sometimes, but not always, we could hear them breathing, almost as if it was more for communication than necessity. The dolphins are actually grey, but have a lot of blood vessels close under the skin, so they turn pink when they exert themselves and need to cool down. They are rather ugly, with a long narrow snout and humped back, and inelegant little fin, but it was such a thrill to spend time with them.

The afternoon of our first full day, we returned to Trinidad. We had told the crew that we wanted to see the bull-teasing, a major tradition in the area, and they kindly arranged it for us. As an aside, en-route we stopped of at the most peculiar park Ive ever been to. The park was standard-issue kiddies park with swings, play area and lake. The difference was that in the lake were a load of caiman big enough to cause damage, plus a free ranging tapiar, brocket deer and jaribu stork, all significantly large animals and all following little kids around looking for food. They also had a 7m long anaconda, but this at least was behind bars.

The area around the bull-ring was noisy with temporary bars and restaurants, and crowded with families and youngsters - the girls watching the boys in the ring, and the boys trying to prove themselves. We climbed straight up a 3m rickety bamboo ladder to stand on the viewing platforms surrounding the arena. These were also rickety affairs, made from rough planks of wood nailed onto posts, and crowded with as many people as could fit. Health and safety from the UK would have a nervous breakdown here...

The bull-teasing was something we wanted to see because it was a tradition we would probably never get to experience again. I don't really agree with bull-fighting, but this was supposed to be a bit fairer, more like a cross between the running of the bulls in Pamplona and a rodeo. We figured that if it was gory or unsuitable for the kids (or us) we'd just leave. As it was, the arena was crowded with men, most of whom never got anywhere close to the bulls, who were in the area one at a time. The bulls were clearly just pulled straight from some farm, and were terrified and unwilling to fight, so quite a lot of goading was needed to get any action. We watched for about an hour, just experiencing the noise and the crowd and watching some guys riding the bulls and being chased around (or getting in the way as the bull frantically tried to get out of the ring). We eventually left after about 20 men jumped on a bull and pulled it down and one drunk started kicking it on the nose. At the end of the afternoon the animals are killed and the meat distributed around.

Our cultural experiences for the area were not quite over, because the next day was Mother's Day, and a very big deal. Most of the crew came from Puerto Balivan, about 10 minutes by motor boar from where the Reina de Enin was moored, and they wanted to be with their families, not looking after a bunch of gringos (actually technically we aren't gringos because we aren't American...). So, for lunch on our second day aboard, we ate with most of the crew and some of their kids at a small restaurant on the banks of the river, before the boat moved again further upriver.
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Elisabeth Devoghelaere on

Wauw, again such a beautiful story: a Belgian captain, dolphins, motorbikes, caiman and anacondas, ...not to forget all Thomas' female admirers. It seems that your journey is getting better every time.
Here everything is well. Back at work since wednesday - that went ok, it was good to be among adults for a couple of hours.
Take care of eachother and keep enjoying this magical adventure!
xxx Liesbeth

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