Unboliviable

12 – 21 January 2012

From Lake Titicaca we caught a bus on to the Bolivian capital of La Paz – the world’s highest capital city. The view as we arrived was amazing as the city sprawls over a huge valley, with every inch of hillside crammed with houses. After checking into our hostel, we started exploring the city, which gives the impression of being one huge, never-ending marketplace. Along the main boulevards, stalls and street sellers lined the edges of the pavements, on the hills between our accommodation and the bus station, the streets were filled with stands selling everything you could possibly imagine and in the narrow streets of the old city, artisanal goods hung everywhere. Of particular note was the so-called “witches market”  – a small neighbourhood where you can buy everything from medicinal herbs to dried llama fetuses (in Bolivia, burying a llama under your new home brings luck, and if you aren’t rich enough to sacrifice a real llama, one of these will do the trick instead!)

The following day, we embarked on our next adrenalin inducing adventure, this time in the form of cycling “The worlds most dangerous road”. This single track road, which connects the amazon area of Bolivia to the capital, descends around 3,000m, clinging to the hillside in a series of twists and turns, with extreme drops of over 600m from the sides. Sadly, estimates suggest that in years gone by around 200 – 300 people lost their lives in accidents on this road every year. However, nowadays a new motorway has been built which carries virtually all the traffic on this route, meaning that the old route is devoted almost exclusively to mountain bikes.

Despite its fearsome reputation, the road was actually great fun to cycle. We were cautious, not getting too close to the edges, but were able to build up plenty of speed as we descended the track. The scenery was spectacular and the adrenalin rush was great – although I’m quite glad we opted for the more expensive, full suspension bikes!

Back in La Paz the following day, as we wandered aimlessly around, we stumbled across a festival taking place in the church grounds. WIth lots of music, bright costumes and fireworks going off, we were curiously observing the festivities from a distance until we were called over and invited to join in. We weren’t able to establish what the cause of the celebrations were, but we offered yummy saltenas (slightly sweet, slightly spicy meat pasties) and cold beers and we followed the carnival-like procession as it made its way from the church out into the city. We felt lucky to have chanced upon the occasion, and even more so to have been allowed to join in!

That evening, we had another authentic(?) Bolivian experience – Cholita wrestling. Seemingly, a popular local sport, the venue was filled with both Bolivians and gringos alike who’d come to see this unique take on lucha libre wrestling, featuring traditionally dressed Bolivian women in full skirts and their hair in pigtails. Neal (a WWE aficionado) was not impressed with their efforts as each fight seemed to follow the same predictable storyline: there’s a goodie and a baddie and a ref who takes the baddie’s side. While the baddie seems to be winning, through a variety of underhand tactics, the goodie always wins through in the end, with the crowd’s support. It was a spectacle to behold if not a very convincing one.

After La Paz, it was on to Potosi, another of the world’s highest cities at over 4,000m elevation and home to some of the countries largest silver mines. The mines are cooperatively worked and tourists like us are able to take tours inside the mines and actually see the men (women bring bad luck) at work in them. Our guide took us deep into the mines, along tunnels that sparkled with traces of silver and zinc, and down shafts of around 30m. We saw the workers winching the rocks out of the mine and carting ton loads of it our of the mountain. Some of the workers were as young as 15. For me, while fascinating, it was a very claustrophobic atmosphere and I was happy when we finally returned to daylight. I can’t imagine working for any length of time in such an environment.

Our next stop in Bolivia was Uyuni where we were to set off on our tour of the salt plains and across to Chile. Unfortunately, we ended up spending longer than anticipated here as we were struck down with food poisoning. If you are going to get stuck anywhere, Uyuni is about as miserable a place as you could hope to be (I wont bore you with all the reasons why), although at least it was a cheap place to get stuck! Finally, when we were sufficiently recovered, we set off on a three-day tour.

The first day of the trip took in a train cemetery, home to abandoned, rusting locomotives and railway tracks and an artisanal markets before reaching the Salar itself. The salt flats were just breath-taking – it was as though we had been transported to some other planet. As far as the eye could see was white like ice. We took the requisite silly photos but it was impossible to capture just how stunning the landscape was.

On the second day, we experienced in a number of different terrains – as we drove through the region in our 4×4 they just seemed to change constantly around us. One minute we would be driving through desert, then snow-capped mountains and rocky crags with lagoons and mirages appearing before us out of nowhere. The lagoons were all different colours, silver, pink and green and each was home to hundreds of flamingoes and some, packs of llamas. It was quite other worldly and magnificent. I must have taken hundreds of photos, but surely none of them will do the area justice.

Our final day was a short one with an early start. We stopped first at the geysers – lots of slimy clay holes, bubbling and spurting into the air (took us ages to de-gunk our flip-flops after). Then it was onto the hot springs which were wonderfully hot to relax in, despite the cold temperature and icy terrain we drove through to reach them. Finally, we passed volcanoes and a green lagoon before reaching the border post to cross into Chile. The trip was amazing – be prepared to be bored by my hundreds of photos when we next see you!!

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Peru part two

After bringing in the new year high in the hills above Cusco, our next stop in Peru was Arequipa, the country´s second largest city. We soon learnt a key meteorological lesson for this part of the country (at least at this time of the year): the mornings are beautifully sunny, but don´t count on doing anything in the afternoon as it tends to pour down!

Having lost a day following one lazy morning, we headed out again the next day to explore the town. The city´s Santuarios Andeanos museum is home to the famous Inca Ice Maiden, Juanita – a 600 year old mummy, who was just a young teenager when she was sacrificed to the Inca gods. We had hoped to catch a glimpse of her, but sadly she is not on display for the month of January and her replacement (there are a number of similar mummies) was being worked upon for the duration of our stay, which was disappointing. Instead we headed to the Monasterio Santa Catalina: a convent in the city centre which occupies an entire block and which is like a citadel within a city. Unlike your typical convent, for many years, this one catered to daughters of rich families who were required to pay substantial dowries on their admission. Within the confines of the monastery, these women were permitted several servants each, were known to give parties and generally lived a rather lavish lifestyle (at least until the Pope caught wind of things, and sent someone down to reform things!). In any case, the convent was a fascinating place to spend a couple of hours and I must have taken hundreds of photos while we were there.

Arequipa is full of tour agencies offering trips to the nearby Colca Canyon – one of the world´s deepest- and while we were there, Neal and I spoke to a number of them about a potential trip. However, after some research online, we decided we could just as easily do this trip ourselves and so we set off, catching a bus to the town of Chivay, some three and a half hours away.

From the outset, things didn´t go quite as smoothly as we had hoped. Firstly, the morning buses were all fully booked, meaning we didn´t get to Chivay till hours later than planned. When we arrived, we headed to the local hot springs, which were lovely and relaxing, although it was pouring down with rain, only one pool was open and we nearly got stranded there when the baths closed. The next day, we caught another bus towards Cabanaconde where we heard there were a number of trails we could hike. We hopped off  en route at a point known as Cruz del Condor which is recommended as being a great place to spot the impressive Andean birds. Little did we know, the next bus wouldn´t pass for another four hours! We were left sitting on the roadside in the cold with the local women who come up to the point to sell their wares – but happily, we did spot several Condors within this time!

The local women were an incredible sight in themselves, they all wore intricately woven hats and beautiful brightly coloured traditional dress.

We finally made it to Cabanaconde and the next morning, we set off on our trek into the canyon as planned. It was beautiful and we both loved taking in the scenery, although it was a steep trek downhill followed by a slow ascent back up afterwards. Our trek ended up rather hurried as we had to catch a bus on to our next destination. So, unfortunately our DIY plans didn´t go as well as hoped – we would have been much better off if we’d signed up with one of the organised tours.

After the Colca Canyon, it was on to our last stop in Peru, Puno. The weather had picked up again in this part of the country, so thankfully we were able to regain our afternoons from the rain. We made a visit to see the Yavari – a former gunboat in the Peruvian navy. The boat was made in England and the pieces shipped over to Peru in the mid 19th century. It was then transported by man and by llama across the mountains to Puno were it was rebuilt, almost ten years later. Now the boat serves as a B&B but it made a curious and interesting visit. Later that night, we went to a restaurant which offered a show of traditional music and dance. The costumes the dancers wore were amazing, some with feather and masks like birds, other comprising mini skirts and knee-high boots. It was great to watch, if a little twee.

The highlight of our visit to Puno was the trip we took to visit the islands of Lake Titicaca. We set off early in the morning, and our first stop was the floating islands of Uros – a collection of over 40 tiny islands each made entirely of reeds. Each island is its own community, with the one we visited being home to nine families and 32 people.

The families who live on the island wear traditional dress, live in reed huts and earn their living through fishing, hunting ducks and collecting their eggs – and now, of course, tourism. We were welcomed to the island, shown how they use the reeds, invited into their homes and finally, given a ride on one of their ornate reed boats.

The islands are like nowhere else in the world and to experience them was fantastic for us. We continued on to another island, called Taquile, about two hours boat ride away. On this island, the people are Quechua and are known for producing some of the finest textiles in the country. The island was beautiful with stunning views (and fortunately for us, fantastic weather) – it reminded be of being on an unspoilt Greek island in the middle of the Med, rather than on a Peruvian lake.

The lake, of course, is not solely Peruvian – part of it is Bolivian territory – our next stop. But as the proud Peruvians like to joke, “Titi for Perú, Caca for Bolivia.”