Sunday, 13 March 2011

Bolivia pt I: Copacabana, La Paz, Cochabamba 11-21/11/10

by Tim




What a difference a lake makes. We left dreary Puno and followed the perimeter of lovely lake titicaca for quite some time before reaching the Peru / Bolivia border.



With beautiful blue skies and baking hot temperatures we had to disembark and walk the last one hundred metres to the border control. and queue, hot and stinky with many other people from many other buses. thirty minutes later we got to the front and handed over one piece of paper, then told we had to queue again next door to hand over another. whatever, after an hour we had passports stamped and were allowed to step across the border to try to find our bus.

a short dusty ride later we had arrived at copacabana. i don't know the backstory to mr manilow's famous song but i can't imagine Lola did many shows here!

as we stepped off the bus, we were immediately hassled by people who would just love us to stop at their hotel. We had just read in the guidebook that they can be particularly vociferous here, sometimes turning to physical violence in a bid to get your cash. Well, unfortunately the only thing assaulted that day were our ears but it was worth it as we eventually bartered a room for the equivalent of 3GBP a night. It wasn't a great place but we've stayed in worse (though not much worse).

So, our first taste of bolivia was not massively different to our last taste of Peru, hot dusty and largely undeveloped but we were used to this and quickly felt at home. The town had a sea-side feel (well, the lake is huge) and 'selling tat to tourists' was clearly top of the agenda, but it did it in a nice way and the hard sell was softened by the many cafes / restaurants lining the main street which leads down to the lake. Away from the main tourist-strip the streets and houses deteriorate considerably except for the local church which was fairly magnificent and from what we could see immaculate. But with not much else to do, the following day we took the usual tourist route of visiting the Isla del Sol (is translation really needed?).

More blue sky, more hot sun and a rickety boat trip with rickety chairs, we arrived an hour or so later to a place with even less to do than where we'd left. But that's OK, because we were here to walk and take in the sites.

Over the next several hours we walked a fair few miles up and down dusty hill tracks, past ramshackle farms and through the occasional bit of woodland. but almost always we were in sight of the beautiful blue ocean. in fact, the only thing we were more likely to see than the ocean was an islander with a book of tickets demanding money to walk the next 200 metres along the path... i exaggerate. but they did appear with annoying regularity. admittedly,the fee was the equivalent of ten new British pence but its the principal! We stayed the night on the island finding what looked a closed hostel. showered and rested we headed out to eat - not easy on a really small island. we found one place that was open, but the menu of expensive pasta or expensive pizza in itself is limited but when there has been a rush on (3 other people) the hostess was in a flat panic by the time we arrived. She had to keep sending her children out to buy ingredients, i say buy, they kept on appering with ingredients from somewhere... needless to say it was a very long evening after a very long day and we all crashed at about 9pm.

The following day we headed down to the beach to wait for the return boat to copacabana. We watched as a big reed boat was coming into the harbour, then realised that it wasn't being paddeled, rather there was an motor moving it along, again i think this was more for the tourist to view rather than actually travel in. On the way back, the boat called in at an apparently ancient set of reed-bed villages. I was against going to these from the start because they just screemed 'tourist trap'! and when we reched them and noticed the plastic floats beneath the reed beds i felt vindicated. you were supposed to pay for the privilege of walking in these 'villages'... i stayed on the boat.

back in copacabana for the last time, we decided to splurge and stay in a special hostel. Completely blew the budget but it was worth it (by the way, this mega expensive room was still just US$30 for two of us!).

Behind our new abode was yet another hill - Cerro Calvario (Calvary Hill), atop which was a series of fourteen memorials with crosses (hence the name Stations of the Cross). It was an exhausting climb (for me at least) up huge stone-carved steps. So, how bad did i feel arriving huffing and puffing at the top sipping my chilled water to find a virtual mini village of old ladys, most of whom had hauled massive sacks full of cooking equipment and food... I made it immediately apparent that i was suffering with my achilles by hobbling everywhere but i don't think i was fooling anyone... i felt ashamed. After taking in the gorgeous views, we headed back down to find Letty and soemthing to eat.

I wouldn't normally go into detail about our meals, but we thought it was quite funny when we went for food that night, we found a nice looking (but empty) place. Quick, easy and cheap the three of us ordered different pasta dishes. they took forever to arrive and when they did we all ended up with exactly the same thing which didn't match what any of us had ordered! Tasty though and 'no desmasiado caro'! Katy decided that she needed to run, so got up and out early to run along the lake, only to feel as if some one was wringing her lungs out, which isn't nice. The high altitude taking it's tool, with breathing and running not being easy...apparently. I wasn't go to find out.

So, onwards and upwards or more exactly upwards, acrosswards and downwards to La Paz. Crazy La Paz. A massive city in the basin of a mountain range. Hot, busy, loud. We arrived in a 'locals' bus which was unbelievably cheap but terminates in a non-tourist area and without people actively hassling us to stay in their hostel, we didn't know where to go. Lucky then that we were travelling with Letty as the first non-native we saw was French and helpful and talkative. Armed with information, we plodded into town, steep downhill, hot with all our bags. as we neared the centre things became more frenetic; we eventually gave up on the pavement as it was too frequented by people and street vendors. luckily the roads were so clogged with cars we were fairly safe (as safe as you can ever be in South America). once settled in, we tracked down a cafe which was to become our 'local', then made plans for our next 'event'.

the following day, our next event saw us in a minivan heading out of town with ten others and a dozen mountain-bikes strapped to the roof. we had signed ourselves up for a 64km trip along the quaintly named 'Death Road'.

An hour later of slow climbing uphill the van pulled up in a layby, we all got out ready for our alfresco breakfast. At this point everyone was looking a bit jaded as we downed our dry bread & jam and foul tasting hot chocolate. We then all got dressed into our protective black & orange gear and after a quick safety briefing ("don't fall off the edge") we were assigned a 'ride' and we were off. the first 20km was all downhill on smooth tarmac road, which turned out to be a good thing as my pedals failed in the first minute and i ended up freewheeling all the way... and still came in top 5! Katy was crouched down a whizzing like a loon past everyone, but that was just a warm-up.

on to the Death Road real, which got its name from the shear number of people falling off the edge into oblivion or else crashing into oncoming traffic on a hairpin bend... or both. Its massively safer these days as there is now an alternative road which most vehicles use and at the time of riding, it had been five months since anyone had fallen off the edge and killed themselves... so really it was pretty safe.

the track was rutted by vehicles and eroded by water but not too bad and you soon forgot how certain the death would be if you fell off the edge. So we flew down sweeping bends trying to keep up with the guide, whooping and screaming... then the mist rolled in... then the rain started. this considerably upped the odds. couldn't see, slippy roads, massive puddles, wet gloves, dodgy brakes. still. too. fast. but what a laugh. by the end most body parts were either numb or aching, including our smiling mouths.


video
[deathroad.wmv]

More scary was the journey back, as our driver was constantly stuffing coca leaves into his increasingly hamster-like mouth. I've never had the patience to try them myself (minimum forty minutes chewing required apparently), but they should act as a stimulant. All i can say is he either had a dodgy batch or he's been awake for three weeks straight... I've never seen such bloodshot eyes in charge of a motor vehicle. That said, we all made it back safe, sound, tired and very happy.



On our return we had decided to celebrate surving Death Road with a curry, we had heard on the back-packers grape vine of the best curry in the whole of Bolivia, and luckily for us it was just down the road. And it was so very good, not up there with Ruislips finests or Pundits (a must if you're ever in Upton on Severn!), but it was still jolly good.


The other most memorable aspects of La Paz were the street markets. Every day there seemed to be something different and every street had its own speciality; electrical goods, wools and fabric, ironmongery and flowers but mostly it was different types of fruit, veg and food markets. the sites, sounds and smells were almost overwhelming. Llama foetus anyone?*


perusing the markets took a long time, and the fruit and veg looked very nice but we weren't really in a position to buy much (trusting the hostel's kitchen about as far as the cockroaches could throw it); however on most occasions the market is where we would eat (using the time honoured tradition of seeing where the locals go and following them). And it worked. the food was either really cheap or really nice... sometimes even both. most of the time the not knowing what you were eating was best.

by now it was time to start heading South toward Argentina. this necessitated us to travel through cochabamba; a place we'd never even heard of, let alone made plans to visit. but i'm glad we did.

we got off to an inauspicious start. having had hostels thrust at us everywhere we've been so far, we didn't give it a second thought here but - with darkness rapidly approaching - we quickly became unstuck, with places being either too expensive or full. or both. the place we eventually happened on was both available and cheap, but... what's that word for the complete opposite of luxurious? Still, in the words of Meatloaf, two out of three ain't bad, so we called it home for now... and anyway these places have a way of growing on you (though in this instance that might have been literal).

we were on the edge of town and hungry so we blundered through backstreets until with surprise we hit the city centre. not surprise that we found it (we're quite good at that these days), but rather surprise at what a nice city it was. Bars and restaurants lined the main strip and this time they weren't dusty and crumbling, dammit some of them had neon! we ended up in an ice cream parlour called Dumbo's which looked more North American than South.

the following day, we returned to the centre in daylight just to reassure ourselves it was as good as we thought. it was. a well maintained central plaza and more fancy bars in streets we hadn't seen before. in the distance, we could see a big jesus on a hill and with time on our hands we set that as our destination. But not before another of our 'cost-cutting' measures: I let Katy loose with the trimmer on my hair... lets just say that it was not bad for the first attempt!

anyway, back to Jesus. It was a long way... enough for blue skies to turn to grey, to thunder & lightening, then torrential rain and back to blue skies again by the time we made it. Surprisingly (but also thankfully) there was a cable car to take us up the hill (Katy was champing at the bit to walk up but we'd already paid for the ticket). As we reached the top of the hill, the enormity of the statue became apparent... it was HUGE.

we took it all in and then took our - now obligatory - comedy photos (hoping that he can take a joke), before returning to town; this time via a much more sensible taxi.

Katy feels i should share with you the "abuse" she has had during her time running through South America with Cochabamba being her worst. Here they don't just wolf-whistle at you from moving cars and honk thier horns; which is some what anoying, especially as you can't plug into an ipod for fear of being mugged. no. here, as well as the yelling and honking she got slapped on the arse. twice. So for all of you who want to run in South America, my advice; don't! Unless you want to be followed, verbally and - sometimes if you're lucky - physically abused. Public Notice over.

Time to leave Cochamaba, with another over night bus adventure, this time we had two drunk Bolivian football players (apparently they're really good!) firing questions at us. They'd just been to a christening or something. What we got for our money this time was a 10 hour journey with stops evey hour or so that then becomes a 12 hour journey. and as bonus the more drunk of the two Bolvians will be throwing-up down the bus walkway, himself and his girlfriend. Ah the delights of bus travel. retribution came in the form of the bus driver ordering the now slightly more sober offender to clean up his mess. this he chose to do by wiping it up with his designer, snow-washed denim jacket.

And on that note we say a farewell to bileous Cochabamba and hello to sugary Sucre.


* to be buried at the threshold to your home for good luck (yours, not the llamas).

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