Bolivia is an unexpectedly wierd and interesting place
27.08.2012 - 06.09.2012 22 °C
Omigod, we're in Tupiza, Bolivia at 'only' 9,000 feet - and it's WARM! I'm sitting here in just a sleeveless dress and sandals and there's a breeze blowing that for the first time in more than a month is NOT giving me goosebumps. I almost forgot what that felt like!!! But obviously we didn't apparate or beam into here directly from Puno, so I'll fill you in on what we've been up to for the past couple of weeks.
We hit the road again two days after our stay on the floating island, taking an early morning bus that got us to the Bolivian border in just a few hours. Formalities took a little while - the bus dropped you off on the Peru side where you had to report to various officials before walking through a kind of 'no mans land' into Bolivia where more officials were waiting. But by noon we were in Copacabana, a little town built picturesquely on a bay on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. We had a lovely hostel perched up on the hill, and in our room was a real, little wood-burning fireplace. You can be sure we made good use of that, because as sunny as it is during the day, it gets pretty damn COLD at night. It was lovely lighting it up before going to sleep, and then lying in bed watching the flames dance and crackle while drowsing off.
Copa was a nice little place to while away a couple days, although there wasn't all that much to do and see there. The main draw is the Isla del Sol (island of the sun) which you could reach in 1-2 hours by boat - depending on what part of it you were going to. There are no motor vehicles or paved roads on the island, but tons of Inca ruins and archaeologists have discovered evidence of habitation back to the third century BC. According to the Inca religion, Isla del Sol was the birthplace of the sun god, and that - of course- is something you've gotta' see for yourself. We'd heard there was a great hiking path which went from one end of the island to another, so we packed our small backpacks for an overnight stay, left the big ones in the hostel's left luggage and jumped on the boat. Originally, we were planning on getting off at the village of Yumani on the south side of the island, staying there overnight, then hiking to the big ruins on the north side the next morning and getting the boat back to Copa late that afternoon at the nearby village of Cha'llapampa. However the kid driving the boat (honestly, he couldn't have been more than 14) had other ideas, as he blithely - despite our startled protests - sailed right by Yumani!
Ah well, nothing to do in such a case but change your plans. We got out at Cha'llapampa where there was a (required) ranger/guide from the local equivalent of the park service waiting to take people to the Ch'uxuqullu ruins - the most important ones on the island - up in the hills above the village. The hike up to them took about an hour and along the way the guide stopped to explain things, such as how the ancient irrigation system worked - in Spanish. It was heartening to realize that I could understand at least 25% of what he was saying! The ruins themselves were actually nothing really special - I'm afraid we've gotten rather jaded after the amazing sites we saw on the Inca trail - but we obligingly admired the building remains, the sacred rock from which the sun god sprang, and the ancient sacrificial altar which was still standing. The latter was actually pretty cool - I'd never seen anything like that before - and the views from up there were quite spectacular.
They got even more so on the three-hour hike to Yumani. The path was almost completely on the top of the mountain ridge that runs like a spine through the middle of the island, so you had a constant 360-degree sweep of landscape all around you. The sky was also amazing - it seemed so bloody BIG - and after discussing with Gerard I realized why that was: At almost 14,000 feet, we were at a level with (or even a bit above) the few clouds out on the horizon. It was almost like being up in the heavens.
As we continued on and eventually reached Yumani, I started feeling really glad that the kid had sailed on by it that morning. The hike - which was strenuous enough as it was - would actually have been quite a bit more difficult going the other way. The long, steep, uphill stretch between Yumani harbour and the mountain ridge (which was now downhill for us) would have been an utterly exhausting start to the day, and the sun would have been blazing in our face the whole hike, instead of at our backs. 'Geluk bij een ongeluk' as they say in Dutch!
We spent one more day in Copacabana after getting back from Isla del Sol, then it was on to La Paz, the second-largest city in Bolivia. The bus trip there was fantastic for a number of reasons. Firstly, for the water crossing we made at the narrowest point of Lake Titicaca.
. Everybody had to get off the bus, which they then rolled onto a huge (but rather rickety looking) barge-like thing that ferried it across to the other side while we followed it over in a little wooden boat. Why there isn't a bridge there is a mystery to me, but I got such a kick out of the experience I'm glad they haven't built one.
Secondly, for the scenery which was just amazing. As we drove on, the huge, jagged ridge of the Bolivian Andes started to rear its head. I've never seen so many awesome peaks so close together. It was so dreamlike, it hardly seemed like it could be real.
Lastly, for that unbelievable first view of La Paz. The city is built in a huge canyon - the poorer neighborhoods starting all the way up at either rim on the top, and getting progressively more affluent all the way down the canyon walls until you got to the skyscrapers at the very bottom.
The only other city that I´ve ever had such a gobsmacking first glimpse of was Hong Kong.
La Paz reminded me of Hong Kong in other ways, too - especially the incredible bustle and energy. It seems like almost every other street is a curbside market of its own, with people selling everything from pots and pans to fruits and vegetables and even (in the 'Witches Market') llama foetuses.
There's a downside to all this frantic, non-stop activity though. Traffic - and air quality - is pretty ghastly, as it has been in all the big (and sometimes even the not-so-big) cities we've visited. I still haven't completely gotten rid of the cold I had when I left Holland. It's started to get better a number of times when we've been off hiking or in the jungle, but then we head back to 'civilization' and I'm sneezing, coughing, hacking and hoarse again in no time. I'm thinking the altitude might also be playing a role (it can have a variety of effects on your system - especially respiratory) but we'll have to drop down a couple more thousand feet before that theory can be tested.
We only stayed in La Paz a few days. That was long enough to explore the city's churches, markets and museums, and there aren't really any interesting excursions outside of it. I especially liked the National Museum of Art where you could visually make out - from the time of the Spanish conqurers to the present day - the evolution, development (perhaps I should even say 'survival') of the unique Bolivian social, cultural and political sensibility. History can be twisted and distorted (and it often is), but art, however subjective, will always speak its own truth. The artwork I saw in that museum told volumes about what the Bolivians have experienced and endured. There were some breathtakingly gorgeous pieces in it, and I was really disappointed when arriving at the simple gift shop at the end that none of them were included in the few postcards on offer. THOSE were the ones I really would have liked to send to people!
The Coca Museum was also extremely interesting, and a real eye-opener into the deep and multi-faceted significance that coca leaf has all throughout this part of South America. It plays a complex and important role in local life that has been blithely ignored for centuries by everyone, from the Spanish conquistadors to the US government and its "War on Drugs". Coca leaves, whether chewed or drunk in tea, are NOT addictive. They also happen to be incredibly nutritious - not an unimportant thing when so many people live in poverty - and have proven positive medicinal effects. The leaves are shared with friends and guests the same way you would offer a glass of wine or beer, and the feeling of uplifted well-being it creates helps to lubricate social conversation and interaction. The exchange of leaves is often part of important events, such as a couple getting engaged. The 'higher plane' that you experience chewing coca leaves is also seen as putting you closer to the spiritual realm, and they've been a key element of religious ritual since way before the times of the Inca. The Spanish orginally clamped down incredibly hard on its use by the natives until they realized miners and other slave laborers were MUCH more productive when chewing coca leaves. THEN, they had no problem with freely allowing it - and (how typically hypocritical!) slapping a 10% tax on it! Since the majority of UN countries collectively denounced coca leaf in the 1960s as something dangerous that needs to be controlled, there have been severe restrictions on the amount that can be produced for traditional domestic use - which has seriously inhibited and subverted a culture and way of life that has been happily existing and flourishing since before written history. Meanwhile, the production of coca leaves for cocaine continues to flourish completely unchecked in jungle hideaways. A typical example of a stupid international solution to the completely wrong (perceived) problems.
One last thing that was really good about La Paz was the possibility of getting 'western' food that actually looked and tasted like it's supposed to. Usually, you have to have VERY low expectations when you stray away from the simple, local cuisine. Order 'yogurt with fruit and muesli', and you're likely to get a bowl half filled with fruit topped with sugar-coated puffed wheat and corn, with a shotglass full of strawberry-flavored yogurt on the side (and, no, I did not finish it). But in La Paz, you can actually get a decent Cuban sandwich, Indian curry, and even - are you ready for this, Dutchies - hutspot met gehaktbal en jus! We made sure to enjoy the culinary opportunities to the max, because after La Paz, it was on to more primitive, 'roughing it' adventures in the southwest of Bolivia.
The 'Salar de Uyuni' is the world's largest salt flat (10,582 square kilometers, or 4,086 sq miles). It's one of the most popular attractions in Bolivia - you head out in a four-wheel drive in small groups for a tour that typically lasts 2-3 days, also taking in part of a remote National Reserve that has very wild and strange scenery. We wanted to go for a little longer though, and we also wanted to form our own relatively small group, rather than being crammed into a jeep with strangers, so we could have more control over our schedule and what we did. After a three-hour bus ride followed by a seven-hour train trip, we arrived in the town of Uyuni. The very next morning, when dropping off our laundry, we met up with three great Australian gals - two sisters and a friend of theirs - who had the same kind of trip in mind that we did. Nicole, Rebecca and Joanna (or - in Aussie-lingo - "Nic, Beck and Jo") went one way to check out what various agencies offered and would charge, and we went another. We met a couple hours later to compare offers and prices, then went back to the best-sounding one to hammer out details. The very next morning, we were off.
The journey isn’t easy – it can get extremely cold, and you stay in very basic accommodation without heating or warm water.
We spent up to 10 hours a day in the jeep along very bumpy, rocky, rough tracks - no asphalt whatsoever - and some of them so high up I didn´t dare look over the edge at times. And all of this in a pretty harsh, almost uninhabited environment at altitudes between 4,000-5000 metres (13,000-16,000 feet). You have to lug along just about everything you need while out there, down to the very last drop of gasoline. But it was absolutely worth it for the opportunity to experience such incredible landscapes. We were on the salt flats within an hour of leaving Uyuni, and they were one of the most amazing and disorienting places I've ever been in.
The area was part of the ocean until tectonic plate movement formed the Andes and turned it into a land-locked lake from which the water eventually evaporated, leaving only a six-meter layer of salt and a few small coral 'islands'. It's almost impossible to describe what it's like to be speeding along in a landscape that is white and utterly empty around you as far as the eye can see, with only a blazing blue sky overhead.
For lunch we stopped at Isla Incahuasi - one of the coral 'islands'. The coral, of course, is all petrified by now, and the big rocky hill is covered in huge cacti - some are almost a thousand years old. It was a truly surreal sight in that huge white desert. While our driver prepared lunch, we followed a signposted walk around the island that was absolutely fantastic.
. That evening, after watching the sun go down over the flats with a bottle of wine, we stayed in the most 'luxurious' accomodation we would have - a salt 'hotel' on the edge of the flats. Everything was made of salt blocks – the beds, walls, tables and chairs, and you walked around a loose, crunchy covering of salt on the floor.
The following days were spent making our way - often starting off even before the sun rose - through the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna, which was so beautifully strange and odd it was almost like a non-stop hallucination.
We stopped at lakes and lagoons colored blue, green, red and white by micro-organisms or minerals - including borax and arsenic. We passed through deserts with crazy rock formations - one of which (Desierto de Dali) inspired the artist Dali to create his famous 'melting watches' painting. We saw smoking volcanoes, petrified lava waves, geysers steaming like locomotives, and mountain ranges as multi-coloured as ice-cream sundaes. In between, there were llamas, vicuñas, and flamingos roaming wild by the hundreds, and a few incredibly shy groups of ostriches! Unlike other groups we heard from, we had no real problems or breakdowns with the jeep, thank God - and only two flat tires. Not bad!
The Aussie gals - a marine biologist, automotive engineer, and psychologist who is going to be staying to work in a Peruvian village for a while - were incredibly nice and interesting.
Our driver, Edgar, was a fantastic fount of information about everything we saw, and the weather was - thankfully - not as bitterly cold as we'd feared it would be (although we did dive into bed and under pounds of covers as soon as we finished dinner each night). One morning, we risked pneumonia getting into our bathing suits to steam in blissfully hot thermal pools situated right next to ice-crusted lakes through which a few flamingos fastidiously picked their way.
By the time the tour ended yesterday in Tupiza (relatively near the Argentinian border), we were all jolted to the bone and dusty in every single pore of our bodies, but what a trip! That said, the shower I dove into first thing at the hotel was one of the most enjoyable of my life. And along with that, it appears I´m actually - finally - in temperate weather again. Hopefully I can put away the thermal underwear, fleece jacket, one pair of pants and two long-sleeved shirts I've been living in for the last 6 weeks and pull out the lighter clothes that have been uselessly taking up the rest of the room in my backpack. Actually, it´s not ´hopefully´, but pretty definite I can. Tomorrow, it´s off to Buenos Aires! Although.... 20-hour bus ride - GROAN!!!