Bolivia...the bargain basement of South America

Trip Start Nov 08, 2004
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Trip End Nov 08, 2005


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Sunday, August 21, 2005

We decided to miss out the other 2 or 3 "must see" places in Peru. This was mainly due to time but also we could see that Southern Peru was quite over touristy and we were keen to get away from the package holiday crowds. The little we have seen of Peru was enough to appreciate its scenery, mind boggling history and Andean culture. We had a great time in Cusco and met some cool people - quite sad to leave.

Copacabana #2, The Sequel (After Copacabana Rio)

We caught a freezer masquerading as an overnight bus from Cusco to Puno on the edge of Lake Titicaca. Although it has some famous islands the town looked like a serious dump and we were glad to catch the next, much warmer bus, around the Lake to Copacabana, Bolivia.

Even after what seemed like a hundred hours on the bus and a sleepless night, Lake Titicaca was spectacular. The lake is so enormous it seems like the ocean except that it sits so spookily still and in the sun the surface looks like gem coloured glass. The surrounding hills are all covered with agricultural terraces, many from Inca times and their brown barren looks make the lake stick out all the more. When the bus stopped and a man got on collecting "sanctuary tax" for entering Copa, I didn't begrudge it - mind you it was the equivalent of 7p! (Later we discovered though that this tax is just a scam)

This Copacabana couldn't be more different to the famous "Copacabana" of Rio. It's a colourful little town full of Indian faces right on the edge of the Lake in between two hills. There are market stalls lining almost every street and a quite out of place looking white domed Cathedral. Every day outside the Cathedral on the road there is a special ceremony where people dress up their cars in ribbons and throw alcohol over them as an offering to the Aymara gods to keep them safe. Apparently its cheaper than car insurance!

Here in the highlands around the Lake (it's over 4000m) the only inhabitants are Bolivia's Aymara Indigenous people - campesinos similar to the highlands of Peru. The difference here is that there are almost no "metizos" (people of mixed Spanish and Indian decent) or Latino's (Spanish decent) and so the atmosphere is completely different to Peruvian towns where there are many Latino faces amongst the Indian ones. Although Copa is quite touristy and has a couple of big hotels, it still has the feel of an indigenous town quite untouched by modern life. Campesina's trudge around with their loads on their backs or sit behind mountains of different types of nuts, pasta, corn or gadgets on the endless market stalls. Some just sit on the pavement with a couple of piles of pathetic looking vegetables. The Aymara women's dress is different to Peruvian Indians: they wear layers and layers of voluminous knee length skirts and underskirts with a jumper, and a shawl. Quite frankly this outfit makes the women appear huge - although I am sure not all of them are! They all have their hair in 2 long plaits on top of which is balanced a dark coloured bowler hat. They also have the same rectangle of brightly coloured material slung over their backs in which they carry everything from Coca leaves to babies. After asking the way to the fruit and veg market about 50 times on our first day, it became clear that Spanish was a second language to these people - they still speak the Indigenous language - Quechua.

Another Glass house...

We heard that Bolivian backpacker hostels are not the most comfortable, we decided to treat ourselves to a little hotel on a hill over looking the Lake. We were already impressed by our standard room when we took a sneaky peek at a "suite". We were instantly sold. The room was a 2 storey wooden and stone thatched hut with an open staircase on the edge of a hill. Every detail of the building and the decor had been lovingingly designed to be rustic and funky at the same time. Downstairs was a kitchenette with a huge wooden bowl for a sink placed on a tree trunk, the living area had bamboo chairs and a weirdly shaped wooden table staring out at the lake and the town below. Massive stone boulders were lodged in the glass and walls and if it had been built around them everything was squeezed into nooks and crannies including the bed upstairs which was oddly angled to fit the wall. The front and sides were all floor to ceiling stained glass windows and so even the view from the bed was of the blue sparkling lake. It was the quirky little details which made it so special. Things like a shelf containing Inca tools in one corner, and a bathroom suite and shower/bath tub entirely made of stone / rocks. All this for US$32..... bargain! All the bus journeys and crappy hostels become worth it when you come across somewhere so special like this. With 15 Bolvianos to the pound and the average meal costing about 20 Bolivianos, Bolivia was looking promising..


The place the sun calls home...

The next day we caught a slow wooden boat to Isla Del Sol - 2 hours across the Lake. According to the Incaīs and pre Inca civilizations this island is the birthplace of the sun and of their civilization. It's easy to see why they thought it was mystical. The atmosphere is so thin up here that the sun shines with an amazing brilliance onto the lake. The waters are so calm and clear and in the distance you can see a the Cordillera Real`s white mountain tops. The island is small and covered in walking trails, Inca staircases, terraces and ruins. Although the main town is a bit touristy, once out of there the tiny villages consist of mud brick huts, llamas, donkeys and campesinos working the land. It feels a million miles away from civilization. We wandered through some villages and met a few local children along the way until we saw a lovely beach which we walked down to. It was so tranquil, we were the only ones there and there was silence except for the lake rippling and the odd donkey braying. A couple of locals walked passed and we chatted to them. One of them, Pedro, then wanted to give us a lift on his rowing boat back to the "port" to catch our boat instead of walking back. Feeling very lazy after the Salkantay and knowing how hard even a short uphill walk is at this altitude (over 4000m still), we accepted for 30 Bolivianos and arranged that he would come back at 2.30pm. Half an hour later, at 1pm, he was there with his boat wanting to leave. Puzzled, we explained again we wanted to go at 2.30pm. He appeared to understand Spanish but obviously had trouble with the concept of time. We would say "2.30pm" and he would repeat
"So that's 2 and 30 minutes in the afternoon?"
"Yes"
"Ok so that's 2 plus 30 minutes"
"yeeess"
"So that's one and half hours more than now"
"Yes"
"Ok so 2.30pm then"
"YES!!!"
At 2pm he turned up again, and not having the heart to argue we duly got in and he rowed us an hour round to the port, without even getting out of breath! Since then we have had a few similar experiences with Bolivian people where-by you need to go over and over the same point at least 20 times before it sinks in. Quite strange...

Saved by Mr Backpack...

The next day we left for La Paz and I managed to entertain the locals on the way to the bus stop by falling down a set of very steep and crumbling Inca steps with my 2 backpacks on (day pack on front and big backpack on back)! I tripped on a stone and the weight of my pack sent me off balance. Jason said he really thought I had done myself a serious injury as he saw me bounce down the steps and land in a sprawled heap. Luckily I landed half on my backpack which saved me from anything more than a few bruised limbs and a stiff neck. As Jason tried to untangle me from my various bags I noticed a few faces at windows and doors, a few Bolivians came out and started to tell me about how these steps were dangerous and you should walk down them very slowly... a bit late thanks!

The bus journey around the Lake to La Paz was both stunning and interesting. At one point this involved the bus going across a part of the lake on a kind of wooden barge.. Whilst the tourists had to get off and pay to sail across in a little boat, but the locals got to stay on the bus!

Wierd but wonderful La Paz

Bolivia is a weird place, a place where after a while the out of the ordinary is taken for granted. Its capital, La Paz is situated at over 4000m so planes almost have to ascend to land here! Whilst being architecturally quite dull, it has an impressive setting. Our first view of the city was from a vast slum called "El Alto" on top of the rim of a huge kind of canyon in which the city covers the floor of and climbs up the sides. As with all of Bolivia so far it oozes colourful street life and South American character. Many Bolivians live below the poverty line which can be hard to take in, and it has minimal western influence compared to Peru and Ecuador. Shops are simple and all seem to sell the same few things, and most of La Paz seems like one giant street market. You can buy absolutely anything on the street, from a grotesque dried llama foetus (for warding off evil spirits) to knocked-off black-market designer clothes.

The city is alive with constant hustle and bustle as the cholaīs (Indian women who moved from the rural areas to work market stalls) rush around everywhere carrying things between market stalls, and minibuses choke the streets. These take the place of cars in a normal city and each one has a boy hanging out the door shouting a babble of incomprehensible place names. Sometimes there are so many boys shouting at once the street just becomes a mass of place names! At 11pm stallholders pack their entire stalls up into a man-sized sack and put them on their backs, another 14 hour day over.

Our friend Hannah (from *near* Blackpool but has emigrated to Oz - sensible girl) who we have been bumping into since Ecuador turned up and we had fun searching out La Pazīs only Japanese restaurant in the Southern suburbs.As you get lower into the city suddenly the faces get whiter, the buildings more modern and the cars more expensive.Suddenly you realise there are rich people in Bolvia, just fewer of them. It's got to be one of few cities where the poshest parts are the lowest because it's warmer down there. Eventually we found the restaurant which was marginally better than the food we had had so far in La Paz!

La Paz is probably the most interesting of the capitals we have been to, it has quirky but fascinating sights like a witches market (selling weird herbs, magical potions the llama foetus and dead frogs), a unique open prison which is like a small city, and a museum all about the Coca leaf and the history of cocaine which was fascinating. Although Bolivia is proving harder work than anywhere else (very cold, high altitudes and crap food!)it is so refreshing to be in a country that tourism has barely changed yet.
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