Mamacoca!

Trip Start Oct 01, 2002
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Trip End Aug 08, 2005


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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Friday, October 1, 2004

Yes Bolivia, we didn't know much about it before we arrived other than it was the final resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (!) but it's a wonderful place, giving us our first and welcome taste of traditional South American culture. Home to the world's highest capital city, La Paz at over 3600m, we flew straight in from sea level Santiago on Wed 22nd (via a coulple of inhospitable looking towns on the far northern coast of Chile) and immediately felt the affects of the thinner air. We caught a packed mini bus (with our luggage on the roof, oh yes back to real travelling) and descended down into the steep valley, packed with dilapidated houses for as far as the eye could see in every direction, into the chaotic city centre. We joined an Irish couple (yes another) in the search for a decent hostel and then we spent a bit of time wandering around the streets. The shops and stalls spill out onto the pavements and each is tended by a rounded, bowler-hatted Bolivian woman in their traditional dress of layers of frilly skirts, aprons, a high sitting bowler hat and a colouful woven backpack bundle which holds anything and everything from vegetables to babies and sometimes both! It gives these Aymara women a very bulky appearance but they're probably quite skinny under all of that clobber! Their stalls have a mixture of the usual tourist clutter of Inca souvenirs, cheap clothes, coca leaf products (more on that later) and gruesomely preserved foetuses of llamas and other poor creatures which are given as offerings to the Gods. Everyone is very friendly and the city has a nice, if a bit polluted, feel to it.

Unfortunately, Kev suffered a bit the first night from the altiude but was fine the next day for further wanders around the city sights including a large ornate cathedral, the apparently but not so obviously, bullet ridden palace (a remnant of Bolivia's troubled political past) and the excellent Coca Museum which thoroughly describes the local and world history behind this amazing traditional crop. It is called Mamacoca, a link from the Earth to the Gods and something which the Bolivians have used for milennia for everything from altitude problems to fending off hunger and for gross fatigue while working in the mines. There is never an offering to a God or a ceremony that takes place without it. Eighty percent of the population chew the leaves regularly and tourists are given it to fend off altitude sickness. There is certainly a sense of injustice going on with the West commercialising and corrupting the use of the coca leaf for Coca Cola and cocaine whilst effectively trying to ban it's traditional uses and crops.

Sian wasn't feeling too great that night, more altitude sickness that chewing coca leaves wasn't helping, but having arranged a flight into the Amazon Basin for Saturday morning, we killed a day by visiting the pre-Inca ruins of Tiahuanaco which is supposedly the most important ceremonial site in the Andes but was looted so much over the centuries for it's gold, ceramics and stone building materials that little remains to really appreciate it today, especially with the local school kids running around! The local bus ride into the vast plains was interesting though and the snow capped Andes could be seen in the distance once the thunderstorm had passed us by. We did fly the next day, Saturday, but our 9.45 flight was delayed until 12.30 which is typical of Amazonas Airlines but we were soon flying over the plains, mountains and down into the jungle although even in this relatively untouched area, the effects of logging and deforestation were obvious to see.

After touching down in a field on the grass runway of the small town of Rurrenabaque on the Yacuma river (an Amazon tributary), the heat and humidity soon took it's toll but the riverside setting was nice for a sunset walk and the food and hotel were surprisingly very good. The hot and dusty drive to the town from where we took a small canoe along the river to our Pampus Camp, was delayed whilst we waited on another couple arriving. As they didn't, it meant that we had our own personal guide, Rene, for the next 3 days. We cruised along the river for the rest of the afternoon to get to our camp, stopping to watch the Capybaras (giant guinea pigs) and to feed bananas to the Yellow Monkeys. We watched the many birds and sunbathing turtles and of course the evil grinning alligators which slipped silently into the water as we passed by or peered out from underneath the bushes then submerged menancingly. Kev and our guide went for a swim at one spot in the river not far from the alligators but this was apparently safe as it was home to a school of pink dolphins who surrounded the boat and entertained us with their flips and snorts. Who would have thought that we would see dolphins up close in land locked Bolivia of all places, but they were wonderful. We stopped for a sunset beer at a friendly, small bar then went on to our camp which was pretty basic but the cook and our guide more than made up for it. We had the company of another group for the first night interrupted only by our nightime boat ride to spot rare Caymans.

Our second day started with a pre-dawn boat ride listening to the sounds of the jungle as it woke up and to the piercing and startling cries of the Howler Monkeys which echoed all around us. A Toucan appeared near our camp before we set off after breakfast into the hot, waist high Pampas grassland in search of Anancondas. We found one curled up in a tree and then carried on for a little longer to see pink flamingoes in one of the lagoons. After 4 hours we were tired and ready for lunch and a siesta, (it was afterall more than 40 degrees), before going fishing for piranhas in the afternoon. Yes, in the same river as we swam we fished for these meat eating fish with razor sharp teeth and Kev actually caught one, quite unbelievable being the world's worst fisherman! With the camp to ourselves we lazed in hammocks for the rest of the night and relaxed on our last day with a slow river cruise watching the animals up really close and also the dolphins again before we began the dusty ride back to Rurrenabaque and at last a shower! We flew back to La Paz on the Wednesday morning and very efficiently managed to find and catch a local bus to (another) Copacabana, this time on the shores of Lake Titicaca, birthplace of the Inca Sun God and at over 3800m a.s.l one of the world's highest navigable lakes and bloody cold when the sun goes down!

Early the next morning we were on a boat on Lake Titicaca bound for the northern shores of Isla Del Sol, the Island of the Sun and the birthplace of the Inca legend and where the first Incas appeared. An hour's walk through beautiful, rocky, if a little bare countryside, took us to the Chincana complex and a pre-Inca stone table, a ceremonial site where Llamas were and are still sacrificed to the Sun God on the Winter Solstace (the Incas used this site too but sacrificed pure, virgin girls) in front of the sacred Puma Rock. It takes a little imagination to see the Puma's head but it did give the Lake it's name, Titi meaning Puma and Caca meaning water. Our Spanish guide was very good and explained the relationships betwen that and Pachamama or Mother Earth. We carried on a little further to see the Priests' Temple Labyrinth but then had to return to the dock to catch a boat to Isla del Luna, Island of the Moon, where another temple awaited, the one that held the virgin girls of the sun but it wasn't all that spectacular. We stopped again on Isla del Sol, this time on the southern shores beside the ancient Inca stairway, a tiring 1000 steps rising from the lakeside to a fountain at the top. However, the sun, the climb and the lack of food was making us lazy, not to mention the altitude, so we climbed the steps for the view and to where the local women wrestled with their stubborn llamas before we returned to the boat bound for Copacabana, sunset and a well needed meal.

Today we are on our way to Puno, Peru and our 40th country (if you count the 1 day spent in Burma!) and our 2nd anniversary of travelling, how time flies!

See ya,
K & S.
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