Sunday, 15 June 2014

Birthplace and a place of death

We are finally on route to the World Cup which means two things:
1.       We have finally left Bolivia – after 89 days
2.       This is the penultimate blog post of this epic trip around the Americas and we only have 1 week left – gasp, shock, horror

We may be nearing the end but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t still been busy and so here is a recap of our final month in Bolivia before departing for the fiesta of football – and possible accompanying rioting and protests!

We didn’t waste any time in leaving the lowlands of the jungle and getting back up to the altitude of La Paz and beyond. We had to make a seriously long day trip back to the capital but our minds were set and we wanted to get back to a place where there wasn’t such a thing as humidity and mould, which had plagued us during our month of volunteering and had found a home all over our bags!
Now we were all up for getting to La Paz as soon as humanly possible but you would think that driving by a fresh road accident would encourage the driver to slow down a little, but alas, right before our eyes we witnessed a scene of carnage involving a smashed up truck, a car in a ravine and at least 2 dead cows lying on the ground with their stomachs wide open for all to see, and we saw all of this as we undertook another truck at 90km/h approaching a blind bend.

We were using La Paz purely as a transient stop because we had a date to keep and a reunion with some of the former CIWY volunteers at Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. In fact our final month in Bolivia was all about reunions as we ran into and met up with close to 20 former volunteers from our time at Inti Wara Yassi.
Before we departed La Paz and made our way west we had the simple task of meeting up with a long lost traveling friend for a coffee. Close to 1 year on from when we studied Spanish in Guatemala and lived with 2 fellow Aussies we were reunited with Kyle ‘Clark Kent’ Sandilands and it was great to see him, still looking as immaculate and smart as the day we first met him and not at all like a scruffy backpacker.
As we all made our way to the café the world once again showed us how small a place it is by Arancha literally running straight into a former teaching colleague whom she had worked with for 8 years! She also joined us for this Anglo-Aussie catch-up. 

We had already been to the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca back in November 2013 which we enjoyed immensely as we ventured over to one of the islands on the lake to spend a day and night with an indigenous family, but I have to say that the Bolivian side was such a better experience.

Getting to the Copacabana from La Paz was a very simple and short 4 hour journey which we were very thankful for and the scenery once through El Alto (the high part of La Paz) was worthy of a day trip alone. For 3 hours we drove along with the edge of the lake on one side and a spiky spine of Andes Mountains on the other and at one point we also had to disembark from the bus in order to take a boat across a small channel.
Normally we aren’t too keen on touristy towns but with Copacabana we were happy to make an exception. When you have been stuck in a place like Villa Tunari for 1 month with limited options in terms of food then a place like Copacabana that caters purely for tourists is heaven. This lake side town was all about relaxation and luxury (in our eyes) and from the rooftop terraces where we could sit in deckchairs overlooking the lake at sunset we could take our pick from the menus offering good old fashioned western junk food and drinks.
We came here to meet up with Emma (Sweden) and Ollie (New Zealand) and the plan was to hang around for a couple of days until Tibo (France) could catch up with us before heading out onto the lake for a couple of days on Isla Del Sol – the Island of the Sun.

We didn’t really do a lot during our time in Copacabana except to make a lunch trip out of town to one of the local floating islands to watch a women fish a live trout out of the lake before cooking it up for us in what has to be the freshest meal I have ever had.
As with every day out of the rainforest the weather was immaculate and we savoured the warm sunshine on our faces as we gently bobbed back and forth on the island with full stomachs.
During one evening we also took a swan pedalo out onto the lake for sunset and somehow it managed to be myself and Arancha peddling like lunatics whilst Emma lorded it up in the back whilst smoking and drinking beer. How did that happen?

Once Tibo arrived it was time to make our way over to the island. Isla Del Sol is a special place, not only with regards to its natural beauty but also from a historical and mythical perspective as it is the alleged birthplace of the Inca Empire and the sun god himself!
Whatever you believe Isla Del Sol was well worth the visit and one of my favourite locations in Bolivia, if not the whole of South America.
We took a 2.5 hour boat ride out to the northern and more remote side of the island and we would spend a night here before hiking across the road-less and vehicle-less island the next day to the southern side.
The north was stunning. The village was located on a small outcrop of land with a tiny bay on one side and a beach on the other and our hostel was sat at the far end of the village with a patio affording us 360 degree views across the lake so that we could watch the sunset and the subsequent orange glow illuminate the mountain chain in the distance. Being such a ‘basic’ place this also meant that the night time brought forth a starry spectacular.

Bright and early the next morning after watching the sunrise over the lake (not always Emma’s favourite time of the day and we all woke her up from her slumber) we had our waterside breakfast before setting off on our day hike.
After a quick stone skimming contest on the beach we headed up into the hills a little further north along the cliff edge to the Inca birthplace itself. As far as ruins go (and we have seen a lot) these were some of my favourite purely because of the setting and the history that lay behind them. We were able to explore the ruins first hand and after winding our way through tiny maze like corridors we reached an open grassy courtyard where the land dropped away to meet to the lake 200 metres below. Fully aware that we were reaching the backend of the trip we made sure to take a few minutes to sit down and commit as much of the scene to memory as possible, which included the hummingbird that came to hover right in front of our eyes and also take it in that this is where an empire was born.
Just to add to the mystique there was also a sacrificial stone table surrounded by a circle of stone plinths.
From here we now took a trail through the heart of the island and the walk along the route took us about 4 hours complete via a combination of slow walking and a lot of photo taking of each other and our surroundings.
Unfortunately the south was nothing compared to the serenity of the north. Whilst still tiny compared to the ‘normal’ world the south felt loud and crowded but that is not to say that we didn’t like it, it just wasn’t as unique as the north. We arrived by about 3pm so there was still time to find a suitable hostel for the evening and enjoy the remnants of the afternoon sun before it set behind the hills and the cold came on.
Whilst Em caught up on her sleep from the early start myself, Arancha and Tibo went off for a walk to explore some more of the island and we went very British by taking a cup of tea on a cliff side café to stare at the mountains that were now that little bit closer.


That was the end of our brief but very worthwhile trip to the island of the sun so we boarded a boat back to Copacbana and would spend the remainder of the day there before leaving the next morning. It really is all about the sunsets in this part of the world so that evening we wearily made our way to the top of the mirador, at a lofty 4,000 metres above sea level, to enjoy one final hurrah.
I really have a soft spot for Lake Titicaca. I don’t know what it is but the world’s highest lake just has something about it that isn’t present anywhere else in the continent.

We said our au revoirs to Tibo and with Emma we made our way back to La Paz for yet more reunions. During this 5 day excursion to Titicaca a number of the other volunteers had completed their time at the park and would now be converging on the capital.
As far as nights out go, it was a good one. 11 of us met up at the Diesel Bar, a bar that wouldn’t be out of place in London and it turned into quite a drunken affair that ended late into the night at a pretty ropey salsa bar in a still to me unknown part of the city.
The morning after the night before a few of us met up for breakfast where it was decided on a whim that 5 of us would go and get tailor made leather jackets! As you do.
Lior and Avia had come to the reunion drinks sporting their new jackets and considering that they had been made from scratch in just 3 days we were all sold on the idea of visiting the infamous Sonia. It took a while to find her but once we did we began to sort out the deal. Basically you search the internet and print off an image of the jacket you like the look of and Sonia will make it. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it?
Well it was.
Between the 2 of us we ordered 3 jackets (of course Arancha couldn’t make up her mind) and all in all it took Sonia 8 days to complete them and in the end we only took 2 because the other was sh*t.
I can’t say that we got exactly what we asked for but that is not to say that we do not like the finished product. After all, what do you want from a made to fit leather jacket for £40?


During this extended stay in La Paz we finally got to complete the last of our ‘planned’ excursions and it was one of the most enjoyable we’ve done – cycling the infamous ‘Death Road’.
The start of the ride was located about 1 hour outside of La Paz and begins at another lovely lake, high up at altitude at around 4,000 metres. The crazy thing is that by the end of the ride you have descended by over 2,500 metres and covered an incredible 65 kilometres in distance – fortunately all downhill.
As you would expect the whole trip is taken very seriously and we were kitted out with excellent bikes and good all round equipment with helmets, gloves, windproof jackets and also elbow and knee pads if required. To get used to the bikes the first 32 kms of riding was along the new tarmacked road that circumnavigates the original death road and is now the first choice route amongst drivers. It may be a little longer but it is safe and doesn’t involve taking your life into your own hands.
At speed it is amazing how quickly you can cover 32 kms and at times it was not unusual to be free-wheeling it down the smooth surface at over 70km/h.
The great thing about the company was that they filmed and photographed our entire descent so we didn’t need to worry about stopping to get photos of our day out.
A sip of 96% alcohol for luck!


With the first half completed without any incidents it was time for the mid-morning snack and time to turn off on to the Death Road proper. From now on this was the real deal – cycling along the famous road over unstable gravel with the promise of oncoming traffic, 3 metre wide roads and 300+ metre drops on our left hand side – the side of the road that we needed to take if a truck was coming the other way.
It actually wasn’t as risky or dangerous as it all sounds. 3 metres of road is a lot on a bicycle, there wasn’t really any oncoming traffic and the biggest threat came from the other cyclists.
Ours wasn’t the only group on the road, there were loads and all in all I reckon there must’ve been close to 200 cyclists all heading the same way. Fortunately all the groups were moving at different times so we didn’t really encounter them but there were some groups that seemed to be on a mission to get down in record time and it was these people that were the threat as they careered around the corners and came upon you unawares.
Still, it was safe and we only saw 1 accident during the day; a UK girl in our group who lost it at speed and went straight over the handlebars into the gravel. She was ok apart from the shock and a few cuts and bruises.            
At times we were speeding down the trail as well but it was a waste because to do that meant missing the views. The reason the road is so dangerous is because it is in the mountains and so the road sits precariously on the edge of them, meaning that there is a lot to look at from snow-capped and jungle covered mountains to huge waterfalls which we had to ride through; and the spot made famous by TopGear!
As far as we were concerned the day was over far too quickly and usually once you have done a really well known excursion where the expectations can be massive, you do it and tick it off the list; however, with death road I would definitely do it again. It was a really great day out and well worth the wait until now.


In La Paz we continued to run into and meet up with friends, 2 of which were Jeff and Jamie who we first met in Argentina and were now heading back home to the USA to start up their own wine and adventure business after 2 months spent learning about the trade on a vineyard in Mendoza.
Whereas we have accepted that we are in our careers for life now (Arancha may still escape) nothing is nicer than to meet people who have travelled in order to change everything about their lives and actually succeed in doing so. I am confident that they will get to where they are going and you have got to love having contacts in the wine industry don’t you?

One last thing we did here was to attend the Sunday afternoon ritual that is The Cholita Wrestling.
Yep, we went to watch some WWF style wrestling in a large breezy metal shed that is characterised by the fact that you watch traditionally dressed Bolivian women fight each other – in their hats and dresses –and at times other male wrestlers and the referees will also join in with metal chairs and bats.
I can’t lie, it was bad. The choreography was lame and mistimed but that is what made it so funny; there was even fake blood.
The whole thing only lasted for 2 hours and by that time we were ready for the off, but not before we got to go into the ring for a few pics to the Rocky theme tune!!


We were now on a time-killing exercise as we waited until it was time to head into Brazil. Economically Brazil is well out of our budgetary constraints so it made sense to remain in Bolivia for another couple of weeks and fully utilise our visa.
We decided first to head off towards the Andes and stay in the little visited village of Sorata. Normally it would be very easy to get to the village from La Paz but on the day we chose to leave there was a strike in El Alto, the high part of the city.
What would usually be a 30 minute drive up and out turned into a 90 minute nightmare drive through the back streets, which were literally rubbish dumps and building sites, all the while trying to avoid the protests and burning blockades on the main roads.
At one point the driver took a wrong turn and we came face to face with the mob. Normally I would’ve found all of this quite exciting but I was stuck in the back of a packed minibus in desperate need of a p*ss, so I wasn’t enjoying it. Anyway, the mob wasn’t happy that someone was ferrying people around so they stopped the minibus and dragged our driver from his seat before verbally laying into him about being a traitor etc.
At this point we looked at each other and prepared to exit the vehicle and take a very long walk back to La Paz but then as quickly as it started, it ended and the driver a little shaken up was allowed to return to the vehicle and carry on.
We did make it out of El Alto and we did make it to Sorata, a village located at the base of two 6,000+ metre peaks in the lush green foothills of the Andes.  
With more time and a bit more energy we could’ve used Sorata as a base for one final foray into the mountains with a trek lasting anything from 3 to 8 days but alas we did precisely sweet ‘FA’.
We contented ourselves to amble around the characteristic streets full of old Bolivian charm and treated ourselves by staying in a 1940’s Victorian style hotel where we were the only guests. It creaked and groaned as you walked about and as far as I was concerned it was the hotel from ‘The Shining’ – I was worried but as the owner told me, there were only ghosts in your head.

We only stayed in Sorata for 2 days, it was enough, and then it was back to La Paz one last time before leaving the city for good. During this trip we have been to La Paz on 6 different occasions and spent a total of 3 weeks there, the longest time we have spent in any one place outside of volunteering and Spanish school. We really do like the city but 3 weeks is too long!

Next up was Trinidad in the north-east of the country. Rather than take a 2 day bus journey we opted for the 1 hr 5 min flight which would have been nightmarish if you had a fear of flying. Our plane had enough space for 19 passengers and the layout was 2 rows of single metal seats either side of a small corridor with a row of 3 seats at the back like on a bus, and this was all behind the open cockpit where we could see everything including the runway moving in and out of view as we shifted in the wind when we came in to land.
We came to Trinidad for the sole purpose of spotting the Amazonian pink river dolphin and we succeeded; more or less.
The town itself was nothing to write home about but there were 2 standout things:
1)      The central plaza was home to a collection of wild sloths which apart from normally being quite elusive to spot these were really active and could be viewed trying to clamber from one tree to the other by stretching out to the opposing branches before dangling in mid-air like a trapeze artist and making a leap of faith – which in their lumbering style, they didn’t dare to do   
2)      The food hall had a 5D ride experience. Not only were the effects in 3D but dimension 4 was movement and dimension 5 was a touch element. We chose to take the roller coaster through the abandoned mines and as we were whipped around we were hit in the face with wind and splashes of water! It would’ve been a sh*tload better if the glasses were half decent; instead I had to go through the whole ride with one eye closed as it was the only way to make it 3D and Arancha ingeniously managed to wear the glasses in such a way that she was using both eyes but looking through one lens.

Bearing in mind that the whole ride was filmed with CCTV and broadcast to the food hall I have no idea what the locals thought

We enquired about a couple of day trips to see the dolphins and were a little annoyed at the £65 price tag for a day out on the river in a rickety boat with the promise of a soggy cheese and ham sandwich for lunch, so we decided to go it alone. We could easily arrange our own rickety passage.
We took a taxi out to the riverside settlement of Loma Suarez which was nothing more than a string of huts and a few house boats and set about asking the locals for a ride, of which many were obliging.
We finally settled to take a small wooden motorboat out on to the river with 2 young lads and the cost was £1 per hour!! For 90 minutes they took us up and down the jungle river and we were completely surrounded by the wildlife, namely kingfishers and herons but not the bloody pink dolphins! Yes we did see them very briefly as two came up for air before disappearing back beneath the murky surface but it wasn’t really enough; like the chance to swim with them in Rurrenabaque; but what can you do?
On this occasion our wildlife fortune was not to be but the river cruise itself was still good fun and a little more personal than if we had taken a tourist boat, which probably did see loads of dolphins that day!     

With the task in hand complete it was time to make our way south for the final piece of the Bolivian puzzle and this also marked a ‘last’ occasion. It was the last time we would be taking a bus!! I am going to try to calculate how many miles we have covered in buses on this trip and it will be in the thousands and I can tell you now that we are over them. Yes in some countries they are supremely comfortable and a luxurious way to travel but we have lost days on buses and quite frankly we are done!
This particular journey lasted for 10 hours and wasn’t too bad especially as a toucan flew alongside us for a few seconds as we left Trinidad but by the time we arrived into Santa Cruz we were only too happy to get the f*ck off.
Santa Cruz is Bolivia’s richest and most modern city and claims itself to be more Brazilian than Bolivian. I can’t say that I had much love for the city, it was certainly nice to walk around and it was clean but there just wasn’t much to do, or much that we wanted to do.
We happily wasted 4 days here and of course we ran into yet more former volunteers in the form of Rotem and Marcel (who coincidentally will also be in Salvador with us) and Elise, who herself is on her way to Brazil to watch all of the Australian group games.

From Santa Cruz we boarded a flight bound for Brazil and the World Cup and with that Bolivia was done!
What a country. We spent 89 days in the Un-Bolivia-ble Bolivia and apart from the last week or so we have loved every minute. It is a country of superlatives and I can’t say enough good things about it. Apart from its lack of coastline it has everything else but when you have a lake the size of Titicaca within your boundaries you don’t need an ocean.
When I think about all that we did in 3 months our adventures took us through the desert on horseback, on foot into the mines, over the world’s largest salt-flats and volcanos via Jeep, we took a boat through the Amazon basin, buses to the base of the Andes and bicycles down Death Road.
And let’s not forget the cities, the wrestling and of course Balu and Gato!! I may be leaving with a parasite in my gut that makes me wee out of my arse but in no way can that diminish what has otherwise been my favourite country in South America and number 3 on my all-time list.

Peace out Bolivia, we will see you again!!