I write to you from the UNESCO World Heritage site of world-famous silver mining town of Potosi in South central Bolivia. Much has happened since I last wrote, so I will endeavor to get caught up…and attempt to concentrate on doing so despite the horrendous din of a practice parade outside this coffee shop window.
I left you last travelling on an overnight bus to Puno and Lake Titicacca..finally saying goodbye to Cusco…and hello to my first day in Bolivia, as I would be continuing on that next afternoon to Copacabana on the lake shore (no, not the famous beach in Brazil).
Well, the bus was yet another experience not to be forgotten. This time, not for the uncomfortable seats or bad incessant music…no, this time for the heat. I had a heater right by my foot which was jetting out oven worthy temperatures over the 7 hour journey to the extent that I couldn’t even place my feet on the floor and I felt like a rotisserie chicken. Multiple pleadings to staff fell on deaf ears. By the time we arrived in Puno, at 345am I might add (another lie told to me by a bus company…that we would arrive around 6am) I was Medium well done.
My plan had been to hang out at the bus terminal until around 7 before catching a cab to the harbor and a boat tour to the famous floating reed island of the Uros people. However, I was quite pleased with myself after I managed to finagle, in Spanish, a free room for 4 hours of sleep, before going on a tour that included the boat trip, transfers, and the bus ticket to Copacabana.
And it was worth it. I needed that shut eye and a refreshing shower before heading out at 830 to meet the boat and my tour guide.
I had been warned by other visitors that the Uros Island tour was very tacky and fake. I, in fact, enjoyed it thoroughly. These islands are made entirely from totora reed who´s roots literally float, allowing them to be tied together and then heavily stacked with layers and layers of reeds on top, then the entire “island” is anchored to prevent it from drifting out into the lake, and voila! You´re ready to build your totora reed houses on top and your totora reed boats to get from A to B.
The lifestyle of these people is fascinating. They seemed very happy to see us and clearly rely heavily on tourism for their income. Their costumes and hair braiding was uniquely colorful and ornate. It was just so strange to be walking around on ground that had give to it. I´ve learned how many things in my life I´ve taken for granted…but living on solid ground was never one of them before this experience.
Unfortunately, we were told that due to the extreme and damp conditions…most kids raised on the islands had rheumatism and arthritis by the age of 20 and were unable to walk by the time their 40th birthday rolled around. We were told that this generation was probably the last to live in this traditional (no electricity except for a few solar panels that powered TV´s!!) method, the mainland and its modern conveniences being too strong a pull.
Upon return to the bus station, I was alarmed to be warned that I might have trouble entering Bolivia on my British passport because I used my US passport to enter Peru. I couldn´t understand why that would be an issue, and there was nothing I could do at that point on the bus…so I fretted for the next 3 hours until we reached the border.
On arrival, I spent what Peruvian money I had and waited to get Bolivianos from the border´s ATM.
There was none.
And to my dismay, the border officials demanded that I continue to travel on my US passport and pay the $138 for a visa. I couldn´t believe that the completely benign decision I made a month ago to use my US passport upon entering Peru was now going to cost me. And worse yet, I didn´t have any money. I was screwed.
To my amazement, a couple from Brazil (who later became fabulous travel companions for the next week or so, Samara and Tiago) handed me 2 $100 bills and told me I could pay them back later. I was so grateful.
After miserably and intentionally stalling for time, the border guard threw a form at me and told me to fill it out. Meanwhile, Samara told me to hurry up as the bus driver was getting antzy and wanted to go without me! This was stressing me out and I started to panic.
THEN…the official told me that one of the bills was fake..which was an absolute lie. I couldn´t believe it…he actually wanted to deny me entry into Bolivia. Luckily, Michael, an American on the bus, lent me the other $38 in a mixture of Soles and dollar bills. Just when I thought I was going to get a visa, the official demanded to see proof of my yellow fever vaccination (which no one else had been asked to produce). Thank God, I had it..albeit about 1 year before expiration (I had had a shot on the USS Explorer doing Semester at Sea when our itinerary was changed to include Brazil). He made me go photocopy it twice along with my passport.
At this point, Samara and Tiago were literally standing in front of the bus to stop him from driving away…and with my luggage!
If it weren´t for them, I would have been staying the night sleeping on the pavement outside immigration in nothing but a fleece for warmth and no money to even buy a bus ticket back to Puno in the morning!! What a nightmare.
Thankfully, I got my visa (which they then messed up by granting me permission to remain in Bolivia for 5 instead of 1 year!!) and we journeyed together to Copacabana.
On arrival, it turned out that my hotel had given away my reservation. Could this day get any worse? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it could.
There was no ATM in town, and the bank was closed for the next 3 days for a festival. WTF. What was I going to do?!
Well, thankfully, Michael, myself, Samara, Tiago and two lovely Canadian girls (Arielle and Christine) found ourselves staying at the same hotel and we hung out together for the next two days before heading to La Paz, and they kindly subsidized my existence during that time. I don´t know what I would have done without them! THANK YOU!
By the time we had checked in, we were all in need of a stiff drink and some good food. So the six of us headed out and found a lovely restaurant at the hotel that had given away my room (bastardos) and promptly ordered a red wine and tried to laugh away the stress of the day. We then gorged on an amazing swiss fondue and other dishes that left us full and exhausted. It was a wonderful meal with wonderful company.
The next morning was when we discovered that the bank was shut. Thankfully, I was advanced a few bolivianos by a sympathetic hotel owner on my credit card, just enough to cover my hotel costs and a bus ticket to La Paz. Michael would loan me the rest.
After all the traipsing around town to sort out money, we were left no other option than the shorter afternoon tour to the beautiful Isla Del Sol on Lake Titicacca, and after lunch, Michael and I caught the ferry together.
It was a long, slow crossing, hell, I think I could have rowed faster than this boat travelled. But the view up top was beautiful albeit freezing with a biting wind.
The island itself was very Mediterranean in appearance..it felt like Spain..with lots of rolling green hills, pastureland, and of course the dramatic backdrop of the lake itself. Unfortunately, the boat only gave you 40 minutes on the island before you had to turn around again, so Michael and I opted for a longer tour of the island for a couple of extra bucks (which was added to my tally) which would allow us to take a hike along the south shore to a different boat heading back to the mainland.
It was well worth it, despite the altitude that had us huffing and clutching our chests as we climbed and climbed.
Back on the mainland, being gluttons for punishment, we decided to climb Cerro Cavalrio which is a giant hill view point overlooking the town, and it was supposed to have an amazing vantage point for sunset. It was an exhausting climb but we were rewarded with not only views over the city and lake as the sun set into the water, but also of the revelries going on in the main square as severe partying got underway for the Festival of the cross.
By the time we arrived at the top, huffing and puffing, it was already getting dark and we realized that we better hurry if we were going to get down safely. We chose the alternative route down, and whilst I was pretty comfortable, Michael was not enjoying the lack of visibility and the steep jagged rocks underfoot. We made it back the city OK, just very ready for our evening meal.
Meeting up with our fellow travellers we enjoyed a wonderful meal in a fire lit restaurant of the local speciality: Trucha, or trout. It was delicious, and I had perked up because the manager had assured me that the bank would re-open in the morning.
Of course, it didn´t. How shocking. Not.
After dinner we walked back up the hill towards the sound of trumpets blaring and thousands of
people cheering and having fun.
This party was unlike anything I´ve ever experienced. First of all, towns from all over the region had come to Copacabana and were represented by their own brass band. Each brass band played their own song which was intricately choreographed (though not often intricately executed due to the fact that most of the musicians were blindingly drunk). Now, imagine all 8 or 10 bands, playing different songs, all very loudly…..AT THE SAME TIME. It was a cacophony of noise, yet somehow, it roused the locals to their feet in a frenzy of dancing.
What surprised me the most about this Bolivian party (as opposed to a street festival back home) is that all generations were represented- young mothers with children, elderly couples all decked out in indigenous attire, as well as the twenty something crowd. It was fantastic to observe: everyone was having a blast and getting very very wasted on the FREE booze (a peach hot tea with brandy) that was being passed around.
In addition to the music and dancing, each town let off its own fireworks display in a sort of competition style. What was unique was that the fireworks went off in the middle of the crowd! Every time there was a giant Catherine Wheel you had to turn and run for your life or falling pellets of fire would smelt your clothes.
It was certainly a night to remember.
The following day, after a final morning in the town running errands, saying our goodbyes to Arielle and Christine, and booking a day trip¨for Michael and I in La Paz to mountain bike ¨´The World´s most dangerous road¨, we boarded a bus bound for La Paz.
It was a stunningly beautiful drive, and another unique bus experience, this time because we had to get off the bus at the crossing for Lake Titicacca and proceed by boat while the bus was loaded onto a cargo barge. Descending into La Paz, with the incredible Cordillera Real mountain range all around was a breathtaking sight. The city was enormous and completely filled the deep valley and dotted the hillsides all the way up to the famous suburb of El Alto. The city is comprised of thousands of red brick houses and a large proportion of the buildings are incomplete because property taxes are not due on unfinished building projects.
Upon arrival we checked into a hotel that was recommended to me by Mirjam (thanks, Mirjam!)
which had giant painted murals on the walls, then headed out for a dinner at a place that was recommended to Samara for its Llama steaks wrapped in bacon. The first stop, however, was an ATM, and I was so overjoyed at being able to withdraw money that I had my group take several pictures of me in happy glee at my renewed self reliance.
The Llama was VERY VERY good….
I was truly enjoying the company I was in. In all these weeks of travelling I realized that what I was really yearning for was to connect with one or a group of people. Other than Mirjam, I really hadn´t at this point. Surrounded by other travellers, I have still felt very lonely and the pain of my break up was still very strong and causing me to weep daily. I have been so sick of feeling sad and depressed, and angry with myself because I should really be enjoying this experience…the travelling has been so wonderful. Unfortunately, I just feel like a part of me has died from disappointment, so I was so very grateful to spend just a few days with my new friends because they allowed me to breathe in a sweet yet short reprieve from my torturous thoughts.
The next days´ adventure was, I think, the high point of my journey thus far. It was a truly remarkable and memorable experience. The world´s most dangerous road (so named for the number of vehicle fatalities that occur annually and over its history) stretches 75 kms from La Paz to Coroico, and descends over 3800 metres (that’s 12,500 feet!!) with one section of climbing. The scenery was incredible. We began at 4900 metres, cold, barely able to gasp oxygen, surrounded by mountain peaks, and SEVEN HOURS OF ALMOST COMPLETE DOWNHILL riding…we were in the hot, humid, sweaty jungle at 1100 metres, breathing easy. The views were beyond belief. As was the knowledge that at almost every bend in the road, a 1200 metre sheer drop was waiting to accept you and your bicycle if you skidded, hit a rock just wrong, or fell off. At some points, the road was barely wide enough to accommodate a single vehicle and extra caution had to be taken at blind corners to make sure nothing was coming the other way.
Our guides (and the brakes on our bikes!) were incredible and gave us lots of guidance along the way. We were warned to enjoy the first 22km of asphalt as an opportunity to get really comfortable with our bikes, and with going much faster than we were comfortable, to get used to going around the tight corners with correct footing and balance, and being able to do so without depressing the brakes. The logic here was, that if we travelled too slowly on the dirt road sections, we were much more likely to crash, and we had to learn to trust the bikes that were designed for the rigors of the downhill rough.
It was astounding that I made it without completely freaking out. Sometimes, our guide would come along side me and tell me that I needed to go faster and just relax. HOW?? I could die at any moment! He suggested that I sing to myself, which I did.
It helped immensely.
I soon got the hang of the speed and whizzing around sharp bends with confidence. On arrival at the jungle, we were directed into an animal sanctuary (the third I´ve visited now) where we were given congratulatory ice cold beers (God, they were good) and invited to take showers or swim in their pool. Heading to the pool, I was greeted by a group of Kapuchin Monkey, one of whom took a liking to me and proceeded to want to play pat-a-cake by clapping my hands together. He was adorable.
After a filling lunch we piled back into the bus, completely spent, and began the long, winding climb back up to La Paz, all the while staring in disbelief at the crazy drop offs that we had maneuvered on our descent.
What a day.
Samara and Tiago were waiting for us when we got back, and Michael and I excitedly relayed our day´s experiences over an incredible plate of Cuban food in a restaurant we had stumbled across a few blocks from our hotel. They had decided to leave for Uyuni and the salt flats in the morning as well…so it turned out that we would probably be on the same bus and train in the morning (I had booked a different tour when I was in Peru). Michael decided to join them, so we all toasted to the next 3 nights which were going to be COLD and test our endurance of basic basic basic accommodation that was without heat, water, or electricity in subzero temperatures.
I hoped I would see my 3 friends throughout my trip…which I did!
I´ll leave it there for now..and write again (probably later today) and fill you in on my trip to the Salar de Uyuni and Potosi.
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