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Bolivia: Weaving along the Desaguadero

  • Written by  Fearghal O’Nuallain
  • Published in Explorers
Over five weeks Fearghal and Temujin hitched, trekked and paddled their way along the water-course Over five weeks Fearghal and Temujin hitched, trekked and paddled their way along the water-course
04 Jul
For geography teacher and adventurer Fearghal O’Nuallain, it took local knowledge and an acceptance of the unknown to make it along Bolivia’s 200-mile river in one piece

A gust of wind burnished the surface of the Rio Desaguadero. Moments earlier the water had been glass calm. Now hailstones stung my sunburned forearms. I leaned in the direction of the sudden wind in an attempt to stop my balsa, a traditional boat made from reeds, from capsizing for the second time that day. The squall persisted for three minutes. Then it stopped. I looked around for Temujin Doran, my expedition partner, and saw him shivering in the water. ‘Tem’ had managed to hold onto his balsa. But all of our food, camping equipment and camera gear was now floating downstream.

‘Get the SD cards,’ Tem shouted. As I chased down the kit I felt guilty for giving Tem the flightier of our two handmade vessels. Those memory cards contained two weeks’ worth of video footage. The water was cold enough for Tem to catch hypothermia and righting his balsa would require our combined strength. I resigned myself to the fact that we were going to lose some of our gear and all of our chocolate to the Desaguadero, which is shared by Peru and Bolivia.

I paddled back to Tem with the film footage stuffed in my pants and helped him into his boat. We made our way over to the shore, set up camp, drank hot tea and warmed up inside our sleeping bags. We had been on the river for less than three hours on the first day of our voyage and already we had both capsized. This did not bode well for our attempt to follow the Desaguadero from Lake Titicaca to Lake Poopó, some 320 kilometres distant.

The origin of our misadventure could be traced back to London. Three weeks before the capsizing incidents I received an email from a small company that had, several months earlier, promised to lend us inflatable stand up paddleboards for our project. The email described several more unachievable hoops that we would be required to jump through before the boards would be loaned to us. It was clear to me that this start-up business was unable to deal with the realities of sponsoring a high-altitude paddling expedition across an isolated section of the Bolivian Altiplano. This disappointing realisation left Tem and myself high and dry with only three days to go before departure. It was too late to find another supporter, or even to try to borrow a couple of boards from friends.

explore 2Climbing the Bolivian Altiplano to reach the top of the watershed between the Titicaca and Amazon basins (Image: Fearghal O’Nuallain/Studiocanoe.com)

GK Chesterton wrote that, ‘An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered’ and we adopted the poet’s philosophy and embraced this new inconvenience as part of our adventure. We jetted to Bolivia with dry suits, personal flotation devices and dry bags but without any idea of how we were going to descend the river. The descent of the Rio Desaguadero was to be the first in a trilogy of aquatic journeys called ‘The Water Diaries’. From the outset, our plan had been simple: follow the flow of water from the top of the watershed at 6,088 metres to the lowest point in the Titicaca basin at around 3,600 metres. On the way we would encounter retreating glaciers, derelict ski resorts and the abandoned ancient city of Tiwanaku. As Tem is a noted film-maker I had invited him to join my expedition to help me produce a documentary about this adventure, which I hope will engage not only my students but also people everywhere on the twin subjects of the physical geography of water and the impacts of a changing climate.

Upon arrival in La Paz we began searching for suitable craft. Unsurprisingly, stand-up paddleboards were unavailable in the capital of a mountainous, landlocked country. It was possible to rent plastic kayaks but we would have to travel to Peru to collect them. And we would lose a $2,000 deposit if we didn’t return the boats. There was a high probability that we would have to walk out to a road head if the Desaguadero ran dry so we could not guarantee the kayaks’ safe return. Besides, with a meagre budget of $250, renting kayaks was beyond our financial means.

After a fruitless week spent walking the steep, cobbled streets of La Paz we asked Richard Rojas, our friend and de facto fixer, if it was possible to obtain vessels built from reeds using the classic boat-building techniques found in the region. ‘Of course,’ he replied.

explore 3Fearghal and Justino in the boat-builder’s workshop with the hand-made balsas (Image: Fearghal O’Nuallain/Studiocanoe.com)

Doing business in Bolivia is not always straightforward. We spent the next two days waiting in Richard’s office for Justino Quispe, the boat builder, to arrive. When at last Justino turned up, we described what we needed. Then he named his price. We spent the rest of the day bartering and eventually cut a cash deal for two boats. Justino wanted all the money up front to buy materials and to pay his workers. We gingerly handed over a stack of ragged 100 Boliviano notes, half-expecting to never see him again.

The following morning we departed La Paz at dawn to drive, hike and finally climb to the top of the watershed between the Titicaca and Amazon basins. From there we followed glaciers and streams for 100 kilometres, descending some 2,300 metres to Justino’s home on the shore of Lake Titicaca. When we arrived, he welcomed us with coca tea and showed us pictures of the boats that his family had built, including the Kon-Tiki in which Thor Heyerdahl had sailed from Peru to Hawaii. We felt bad for doubting Justino. I also discovered that our boat builder had worked with Alexei Vranich, an archaeologist whom I had been in contact with while researching our expedition.

The next morning we motored across the aquamarine waters of Titicaca to the small island of Suriqi where Justino’s workshop was located. We met our boat builders, a group of old men with hands like baseball mitts. Speaking rapidly in Aymara, one of Bolivia’s three official languages, the men worked deftly to finish our craft. When we saw that it took six men to carry each vessel out of the boat house, it dawned on us that lengthy portages were going to be out of the question. Each boat weighed over 100kg and we knew in our hearts that we would probably have to jettison the boats before we reached Poopó.

The Rio Desaguadero flows through a remote part of the Altiplano. At least it looked remote from the satellite images we had found online. During six months of planning, I had failed to find a single decent map of the area. I gave up the search when I discovered that the best map that the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) had in its archives was an aeronautical chart from the 1960s.

explore 4The Rio Desaguadero was a haven of peace and tranquility (Image: Fearghal O’Nuallain/Studiocanoe.com)

A sense of heading into the unknown is a feeling that’s increasingly hard to come by in this day and age. But we felt it the next morning and it put both of us in a jittery mood as we deposited the boats into the fetid water of no-man’s land between Peru and Bolivia.

We paddled through crystal clear water, admiring the blue sky and jagged mountains. Flocks of pink flamingos ran gracefully across the surface of the water when we disturbed them. But after the near-disastrous start to our paddling adventure on the first day, we made sure to be off the water by the middle of the afternoon on the days that followed to avoid the unexpected gales that had capsized us.

We spent only one week on the river. Instead of covering the big distances we had envisaged, we allowed ourselves to become absorbed in a riverine tranquillity. Freed from the sounds of modernity – there were no motor boats and no cars – we relaxed and enjoyed the gentle slosh of our heavy eucalyptus paddles. On the final afternoon we reluctantly abandoned the boats and walked east until we reached the road to Lake Poopó.

I’m grateful that we did not end up taking modern paddleboards to South America because traditional boats brought us closer to the landscape. The purpose of our journey was to tell the story of the physical geography of water and the impacts of climate change on people living in the Titicaca basin. It felt appropriate that we undertook this voyage using boats constructed using indigenous knowledge and made from materials found on the banks of the lake.

Though not as slick and as efficient as contemporary technology, the balsas helped to connect us with the local people in a different way than had we been paddling 21st century craft. Ultimately, the connections we make with a place, and what we learn from its people, are more important than how far – or how fast – we travel through it.

Fearghal O’Nuallain teaches geography and travels adventurously. His expeditions have taught him that the world is a better teacher than he’ll ever be. Fearghal is currently working on the second in his trilogy of aquatic journeys called ‘The Water Diaries’. Find out more information at: www.fearghalo.com


Our balsas were made from the reed of the totora – a subspecies of the giant bulrush sedge – that grows in South America, most notably on the shore of Lake Titicaca and on Easter Island. The boats are constructed by tying together bunches of totora reeds that have been woven into tight bundles. Balsas are buoyant and surprisingly rigid but without a rudder or centreboard they can be difficult to manoeuvre. Boats made from totora easily capsize, as we both discovered on our first day on the Rio Desaguadero. Our craft were supplied with a paddle carved from eucalyptus that weighed ten kilograms.

The Desaguadero loses just 200 metres in height during its 320km journey from Titicaca to Poopó so the flow rate is moderate. Add to that our 100 kilogram boats and heavy paddles, which made progress on the river painfully slow. And the thin air of the region’s high altitude often left us gasping for breath.

Each evening, Peruvians and Bolivians brought their cows to their respective sides of the river to drink before sunset. The herders checked out our campsite to see what we were doing. We chewed coca leaves together and I chatted in my broken Spanish. I learned something new from each encounter and felt privileged to be able to speak with these tough and resilient people who eke a living out of the thin soil at an altitude of 3,800 metres.



Paddleboarding in Bolivia presents its own set of challenges, not least was getting a board to paddle on. For Fearghal O’Nuallain the main concern was waterproofing his gear in the event of accidents, so bags to keep the cameras dry, clothing that stood up to a soaking, food that would fit in the boats and, of course, authentic Bolivian headwear...kit

1. Footwear

Palm Gradient Boots – £90; 480g

We knew we would have to hike out when we encountered an obstacle that we were unable to portage our 100kg boats around. We therefore needed boots that were comfortable for both wading through water and for hiking on dry land. I loved the Gradient’s ample toe box, which gave lots of wriggle room.

2. Sleeping Bag

The North Face Blue Kazoo – £250; 1.08kg

This three-season sleeping bag is stuffed with water resistant down. The design features anti-compression pads that help maintain an even distribution of the natural insulation. The draft collar seals in body heat on cold nights.

3. Dinner

Fuizion freeze dried meal – £6.50; 110g

At 5,000 metres it takes too long to cook food from scratch. We saved fuel and time by eating these dehydrated meals. What began as a pragmatic decision quickly turned into a highlight of each day. Each pack contains 650 calories.

4. Tent

The North Face Triarch 2 – £250; 1.72kg

The Triarch is a lightweight and roomy shelter. Vertical side walls further increase the sense of space. A vaulted head and footbox at either end improve clearance when crouching and laying down. Also the twin entry points allowed me to nip outside when nature called.

5. Dry Bag

Palm River Trek 75 litres – £50; 1.3kg

I prayed this bag would keep our camera gear dry as I watched it float downstream after Tem capsized. Thankfully, it did. Tough‚ durable and waterproof, the River Trek’s padded shoulder harness made it comfortable to carry when fully loaded.

6. Socks

Smartwool Men’s PhD Outdoor Medium Crew – £20; 90g

Expedition socks are a bit like working for a manager. When they’re doing their job well you don’t notice them. When they’re bad they make your life a misery. I hardly noticed these: they kept my feet warm and comfortable throughout the journey.

7. Primary camera

Samsung NX1 – £1,250; 550g (body only)

The NX1 shoots broadcast quality, ultra HD video. It also captures 28MP still images on its APS-C CMOS sensor. The NX1 is an interchangeable lens camera that is sufficiently compact to wear on your belt. The camera’s size made it less obtrusive than a traditional video camera when it came to filming people.

8. Secondary camera

GoPro HERO4 Silver – £260; from 83g

Our waterproof GoPro was indispensable for capturing point-of-view and underwater shots. Its reasonably inexpensive price allowed us to have fun strapping it to the eucalyptus paddles and various parts of the reed boats when it wasn’t fastened to our chests and heads using dedicated mounts.

9. Immersion Suit

Palm Torrent – £500; 1.61kg

Fitted with lightweight‚ flexible Masterseal zips and a ‘4D’ cut to maximise freedom of movement‚ we found the Torrent to be both warm and comfortable. The fabric was robust enough to deal with being worn while frozen stiff each morning as a result of the previous night’s frost.

10. Headwear

Alpaca Chullo – £20; 100g

Snug and warm chullos have been worn by the indigenous people of the Andes for thousands of years. The different colours, patterns and weaves have significance throughout the region as they are used to distinguish various communities. You can buy original chullos throughout the Andes or you can purchase faithful copies on Etsy.


…Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I pack a copy on every expedition I undertake for inspiration from my favourite adventurous philosopher.

This was published in the July 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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