Into La Chiquitania

After a week of being virtually incommunicado, I have a backlog of thoughts and observations to share, so I’m going to do my best to pass it along without overwhelming you, while keeping everything, more or less, in chronological order.

Have you ever had the sensation that something you’ve been preparing for, for a long time, say months, is always just around the corner, and then around the next corner, and… Well, last Tuesday, we finally sat down with our key contacts in Santa Cruz, to put together all the pieces of the puzzle: bus and train timetables, schedules of people in the field, budgets for transportation, food and lodging, when we came to the conclusion that it was going to be near impossible to accomplish what we wanted, based on the original plan.

The only way we could be where we needed, when we needed, was to rent a vehicle. Yikes! After a painless conversation with our CUSO contact in La Paz, it was decided to shuffle some money around and hire a car with a driver. We met with Luver Tuesday morning, discussed our needs and schedule, a price was negotiated, a contract was drawn up and we agreed to leave that same afternoon. Luver has a small company, that drives, tourists into the Chiquitania and assured us that we would have no problems with the roads vis a vis their vehicle. I imagined a 4 X 4 with the spare tire on the roof rack and ham radio wip, swaying back and forth next to the extra gas can, secured to the rear bumper. Oh and decals, decals with a distant mountain and a truck loaded with camping gear. Remember those pre-conceptions?

We were expecting Luver to arrive, as agreed upon earlier in the day, around 3:00pm, but instead, Alberto, Luver’s nephew, showed up around 4:00pm in a well used mini-van chock full of stuff, and by that I mean last year’s candy wrappers, empty bottles of water, spare car parts etc. so we would first have to drop by Alberto’s house to make room for all our gear and the long road ahead. Alberto, who is a Civil Engineer by day, works for a municipality north of Santa Cruz, and wants to buy a house, so his uncle had offered him this opportunity to make some extra bucks, and his boss was generous enough to allow him a few days off. This opportunity allowed him to earn about a month’s salary in one week.

After dropping by the Fundacion Para La Conservacion del Bosque Chiquitano (FCBC) to pick-up Ulysse, a Forester and Volunteer from Quebec, and who would be our guide on the first leg of the trip, we stopped by Alberto’s place do repack the vehicle. While we waited, we met his children and his wife offered us some homemade caramelized custard, or simply Flan de Huevo as we say in Spanish, and we were off.

The region we were heading into is dotted with seven small communities referred to as the Jesuit Missions, and as rough as the roads are, there is great interest in improving the infrastructure to market the Jesuit Mission Route as a tourist destination. However, the region is known for more than it’s beautifully restored mission churches. The Circuit of approximately 900 km. runs through forests rich in natural oils and fruits and we were to have the great privilege of visiting projects supported by CUSO which are helping to preserve those forests, by teaching the local people to harvest rather than cut down their riches.

In the next few days, we would discover the Chiquitanian Almond, Cussi Oil, Copaibo Oil and various other natural fruits and ingredients that are making their way from popular usage to commercial shelves, all in an effort to provide a sustainable source of income without destroying the natural environment.

In the short term, our first destination was the mission at Nuestra Senora De La Concepcion, or Concepcion for short. Now, imagine the roughest bush road you’ve ever travelled, I understand that the road through Quebec to Labrador is no picnic, throw in corrugated hard packed mud, clouds of red dust, and you’re half way there. We left Santa Cruz on a paved road that deteriorated into a crackled surface and in some stretches, we were told that the pavement was missing because it was easier to rip up the asphalt than repair the potholes. The raw materials to manufacture good quality asphalt is not available locally and extremely expensive to import. So, even though the initiative may exist to build the road infrastructure, it is expensive to maintain. This, as you might imagine is a huge road block, no pun intended, to marketing the Jesuit Mission Route. It took us over five hours to travel approximately 250 km.

Tomorrow we kick up more red dust, discover more varieties of palm trees and harvest the natural bounty the forests have to offer. 

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