Having spent our first week in concrete jungles, we couldn´t wait to get into Bolivia and get out into the wild. Unfortunately we flew into Bolivia´s most populous city and commercial center, Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
However, the tranquil, white-washed central plaza, along with our jungle oasis of a hostel - complete with pet Toucan - gave this city a completely different feel. Santa Cruz is widely regarded by backpackers as a city to simply pass through, and so we decided that it was time to try something neither of us had done before; CouchSurfing.
Couch surfing is an online community, established about 10 years in San Francisco, with the aim of helping people to explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Like-minded travelers can meet, share local knowledge, and most importantly offer a free place to sleep for those wanting to delve into the local way of life rather than stick to the tourist hotspots. A Bolivian girl, Mai Guzman, had kindly offered to host Anna and I for our stay in Santa Cruz, as well as sharing her typical Wednesday evening with us. As I was new to Couchsurfing I had no idea what to expect, but as soon as she met us her open, warm personality won us over completely and I got the impression that Mai was exactly the type of person that the creators had hoped to attract when they came up with the idea. She introduced us to a few a her friends, and then set about showing us with great energy what a 21 year old Bolivian´s typical Wednesday night involved. We drank supermarket beers on the street with the local skateboard crew, smoked weed at a bar where you could write all over the walls, and finally ended up at a very lively local Reggae night. Anna and I partied the night away with Mai and her crew, and we had a fantastically unexpected night. As a result, we had a much better night in Santa Cruz than any other backpackers we´ve met since. And I think that´s the point of Couchsurfing, to make connections with local people and be rewarded with an enhanced experience of a place as a result.
Next we headed south from Santa Cruz to the tranquil hippy paradise of Samaipata, at 1800 meters in the andean foothills. Surrounded by lightly forested hills - which would definitely be considered mountains in England - this hippy hide-away was exactly the kind of place we´d been looking for after spending close to 10 days in cities. Considering that 20 different nationalities live here permanently, Samaipata was surprisingly traditional and fortunately the tourism scourge seems to have passed this wooded wilderness by. Anna and I stayed in a wonderful hostel called El Jardin run by a Dutch hippy and a Bolivian woman he´d fallen in love with, and the relaxed vibe was just what we needed. We paid just £3.50 a night for our little mud hut, complete with wine bottles for windows and hammocks swaying leisurely from the roof. Cooking pasta by the fire, listening to dread-locked travellers recount fascinating stories, with an infinite amount of stars shining above our heads, we´d finally got out into the wild.