La Hoja de Coca no es Droga

November 20, 2009

 My mission was simple: escape the cloud forest alive. My sharpened machete cut a path through the thick vegetation while the fistful of coca leaves inside my cheek propelled me forward for hours in a hunger-less daze. Unseen predators lurked here; I could sense their presence. Nightfall was coming but I pushed on. The forest would not claim me as it had so many others...

Samaipata, Bolivia, offers the kind of untouched wilderness that entices your imagination to run wild. If you're ever looking to escape somewhere to write that novel you've always dreamed of composing, this would be a good spot to do it. But no so fast; in order to get here, you'll need to pass through Santa Cruz.

Plaza 24 de Septiembre, Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Bolivia's most populated city doesn't have a lot to offer in terms of tourist attractions, but it does have one unique feature: the best central plaza that I have experienced in South America. Plaza 24 de Septiembre is a place where its easy to pass the better part of a day relaxing, reading a book, or in pleasant conversation. There are dozens upon dozens of benches under the shade of many tropical trees. A gentle breeze passes through and its easy to forget you're in the middle of a hectic urban jungle. The large plaza is so well-loved that at ten o'clock on a Wednesday night, I observed that nearly every bench was occupied! My hostel was only two blocks away, and needless to say, I spent a lot of time in Plaza 24 de Septiembre.

Samaipata, Bolivia

From Santa Cruz it is a three hour drive to the sleepy town of Samaipata. The journey there offers a glimpse of the breathtaking natural landscapes that are accessible from the village. For all its beauty, the area still sees relatively little tourism, at least compared with the more visited spots around La Paz and Western Bolivia. My small party of adventurous travelers and I undertook two memorable hikes while staying in Samaipata, and we did not run into a single other tourist on either trek.

 The first hike started with a walk up rolling hills offering fantastic views over the valley and surrounding area. Pictures can hardly do this place justice. After catching our breath, we then descended down through lush vegetation to a first waterfall. Alarmed by our intrusion, a flock of vibrant green parrots bolted overhead in a cacophony of frantic chirping and wing-flapping. The cascade before us offered a tranquil setting for bagged lunch. But it would pale in comparison to what lay ahead.

 Do you have a fear of quicksand? You might be deterred from doing what we did next. Taking off our shoes, we took off barefoot down the muddied riverbed . Every step was a surprise; how far down would your leg sink this time? It was hilarious to watch the person ahead of you walking along smoothly only to suddenly plunge down to their knees in mud!

 We then came upon a magnificent roaring waterfall...set in an oasis you normally only envision in dreams. Stripping down to bathing suits, we jumped in the pool underneath to go for a refreshing swim! I recklessly maneuvered directly under the falling cascade, and felt the flow of rushing water hit my head like a torrential thunderbolt. I can't remember the last time that I felt so alive! I will undoubtedly look back on this experience as one of the highlights of my time in Bolivia.

On our final day in Samaipata, my Dutch friend, Timo, and I hired a local guide to take us into the mystical cloud forests of Parque Nacional Amboro. Cloud forests exist in a near perpetual fog, resulting in an abundance of mosses and unique low-level vegetation. No such forests exist in the continental United States.

Our excellent guide offered us coca leaves to help us deal with the strenuous hiking at relatively high altitude. Coca is cultivated in the andes, and chewed by many in Peru and Bolivia because it acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. It contains small traces of cocaine but does not produce the euphoric and psychoactive effects associated with the drug. With a large wad in my mouth, I moved on and marveled at the fascinating array of plant life all around me. While stopped for a water break, I looked up and caught sight of a spectacular bird perched mere feet from our resting place.

We had been hiking for several hours when we reached the top of the mountain and the vegetation drastically changed. The fog was so thick that we were unable to see the vast park spread out before us, but in a way this added to the mystique.

My time in Samaipata had been unforgettable, and now I was ready to cram into a taxi and head back to Santa Cruz. One day I would love to return to Eastern Bolivia in order to further explore this captivating region. Or perhaps, to look into starting my own coca farm.

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