Bolivia – part uno

Puno, Peru and Copacabana, Bolivia share the world’s highest altitude lake, Lake Titicaca (tehe).  Our 5 hour bus ride between the two cities was gorgeous.  And had the added bonus of yet another boat ride, which we were completely unaware of until the bus driver ordered everyone out of the bus.  We politely indicated that we preferred to stay with all of our bags on the bus, but he wasn’t budging.  Ugh, gringos!  It turns out that everyone gets off the bus and pays $2 Bolivianos for another putt-putt boat across a portion of the lake because it cuts something like 2 hours off the travel time of going around the lake(not titicaca).  The cool part was seeing our bus also get water taxied across on a raft.

We arrived in Copacabana, another 2 street town, in the bright heat of midday.  The view of the lake from Copacabana blows Puno’s view out of the water.  We decided to treat ourselves to a private room in a hotel (for once!) on a hill overlooking Titicaca and the view from our tiny balcony was striking.  The hotel still had shared bathrooms, electrical showerheads with exposed wire and was only $20.We sat on our balcony for a few hours, reading, drinking malt licquor (we thought we were buying beer!), and watching the sun go down on the lake.  It was lovely.  There’s not much going on in Copacabana, except that its the lauching point for visits to Isla del Sol.  So the next day we packed a lunch and lathered up in sunscreen for an island hike.

Its a 2 hour boat ride to the northern end of Isla del Sol, mostly because again, the rather large ferry is powered by a small kitchen appliance.  Our plan was to disembark on the northern end, hike 3-4 hours south, and then meet the ferry at the southern port for the trip back.  When we arrived in the northern port, we are delighted to find that the locals were having a celebration!  They were dressed up like mummers and strutting to brass and Andean pan flute bands.  We were treated to the soft repetitive sounds of the Bolivian brass bands for most of our hike.  That’s the nice part of the hike, the scary part of the hike was that the trail is unmarked, meaning that at times we were traipsing through people’s farms and having to backtrack and bushwack.  Hiking is not either of our strengths to begin with, so there were some tense moments.  We took to tracking sneaker prints in the dust and following litter trails, since we infrequently ran into actual people to ask the way.  Eventually, we made it to the southern port and in time to catch to boat back, otherwise we would have had to sleep on the island!  (Rachelle would like to add that she was impressed by the fact that an island that does not have enough water for drinking or showers on a regular basis, has three types of recycling bins throughout the island… which is better than most US cities)

After Copacabana, we headed to La Paz, the polluted, cold, and breathless Bolivian capital.  It is 12,000 feet above sea level and the streets are a constant cloud of diesel   Needless to say, we didn’t really dig La Paz.  It was almost impossible to get warm even huddled under the covers.  Also, we had this crazy idea that we were going to see movies in movie theaters, shop in shopping malls, and just generally live the high life for insanely cheap.  None of which happened, so our expections probably got the best of us again.  Our big excursion was seeing cholitas wrestle, which was a singular experience.  The cholitas wear their big skirts and tiny ballet shoes (but remove their bowler hats for the fight) (Spoiler alert: the cholitas’ bowler hats stay on their heads by balance alone-no pins!) while they wrestle against masked lucha libres.  It makes you feel funny, as a woman, to have paid to watch a masked man put a choke hold on a women with 2 braided pigtails, but maybe this is equality? We and the other gringos had seats in the “splash zone” where we were spit on and had people thrown over the gates and break chairs right next to us, the place was mostly full of locals that were practially peeing themselves with laughter of this Bolvian WWF event.

Another site worthy of reporting is the copious amounts of llama fetuses that are sold in the “Witches Market” along with many other SA/Bolivian good luck charms.  We were reading the book Marching Powder at the time (which is banned in Bolivia) about the corrupt police and penal system in San Pedro Prison (where inmates pay for cells, have all the comforts of home, have their families live in the prison and make the purest cocaine) and we got to see the prison (they stopped giving tours fairly recently). As per our parade luck, we ran into some celebration where people donned colorful shiny and feathery costumes and played music.  Our last day we saw that same major road full of workers and thousands of cholitas (the thousand cholita march?), marching with the beat of chants and gun shots. We were lucky enough to get one of the last buses out of town before they closed off all access in and out of the city. Yikes!

From La Paz we took an overnight bus to Uyuni where we would take a 3 day jeep excursion to see the salt flats, lagoons, volcanos, the dali dessert, and so much more!   Our bus twisted and tunred the entirety of the evening and felt like we were on one of those beds you put a quarter in to shake!  With very little sleep, we arrived at a corner where we were dropped off in the wee hours of the morning. It was so cold that we could not feel our feet or hands and it was too early for anything to be open. We wandered for a bit until a lady came up to us and made us follow her until she handed us off to another random person to who took us into his…garage?  But the garage turned  into a restaurant (phew) where we could wait until the town opened.  Our tour agency booked up and, against better judgement, we found another by a solicitor. Word is that a LOT of companies have irresponsible drivers that drink heavily whilst driving and often do not feed their customers. We wanted to avoid these companies at all costs, but it seemed to be a crapshoot.   It turned out that we had a great driver and an even better group of people in our 4×4. We were with two other couples, one from Romania and another American/Belgian couple, all newlyweds. We saw an abandoned train cemetery  and then the salt flats, where we got to take fun perspective photos.  The salt is hard and cold and looks like ice or white sand for as far as the eye can see. We got to see people harvesting the salt…which makes ya wonder if YOUR salt has been driven over or played upon. We were served a surprisingly delicious lunch on the flats and then drove to see a cactus island that sits amidst the white white salt. After hours of driving, we arrived at our place of slumber which was a salt hotel. That is correct!  Everything, save the mattresses and the toilets, was made of salt. Salt walls, table, beds, and even the floors were sprinkles of salt!  Needless to say, it was not clean nor comfortable and we only had electricity for an hour or two.  One of our more terrifying events happened that evening when we were awoken by, what we later found out to be, drunk guides (drivers) from other groups screaming and trying to get into our rooms… they were unsuccessful and drove into the night until they had to pick up their morning crew.  The second day of driving through the seemingly vast emptiness, we came upon several lagoons with countless flamingos. Due to the borox(?) in the water, the colors were bright and diverse and beautifully contrasting. Bright reds, blinding whites, shiny yellows and deep blues. Spectacular views. We stayed at another terrible “hotel” in the middle of nowhere that night and, despite our 4am wake up call, we partied with the other folks that also were staying there. It was amazing to be sitting around a table in the middle of nowhere Bolivia with people from Italy, Germany, France, Romania, Belgium, and be speaking English!  What a unique experience. The last day we woke early and walked through geysers and over bubbling volcanos then to a sizzling hotspring. The temperature difference was so extreme that steam rose around as the sun came up.  Despite the terrible sleeping accommodations, the vistas were breathtaking.  From there we crossed into Chile… but would return to Bolivia a month later.

More Bolivia to come


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