Monday, October 4, 2010

Bolivin' the Dream

We're a little bit behind in our blogging, so this is going to serve as an Intro to Bolivia/Lake Titicaca/La Paz combo post. I know, I'm excited too.

Intro to Bolivia

We have only been in Bolivia for a short while, but have really enjoyed the few places we've had an opportunity to visit. The country offers a seemingly endless variety of landscapes and we are doing are best to take in a fair cross-section. Planning a route through the country has been a head-scratching experience, though, as towns that appear to be located close to one another on a map often take a disproportionately large amount of time to reach on account of the unforgiving terrain. Because of this phenomenon, we never seem to know where we are going until the day before or the day of our actual departure. I'm not much of a planner, so I'm finding travelling here really fun in that respect. Kristin, the consummate planner, is probably ready to snap-lose-it.

Crossing the border from Peru into Bolivia was one of those times when, even though you can't necessarily put your finger on what it is, you get the feeling that you have definitely arrived in some place new. There was just something about the way the first towns operated and our interaction with people that suggested as much. An example of a less subtle difference is the quasi-formal system of taxes and tariffs that we have been subjected to since our arrival. Some places place a tax on tourists the moment they arrive in town; most have some sort of tax to leave (in addition to what you are charged by transportation company). Some places have taxes to access different parts of the same town/island; different people on those towns/islands often try to make you pay the tax more than once. In Rurrenabaque, for example, after we paid for our flight and corresponding taxes, we were pointed to a man at the next counter to pay an extra airport tax, who in turn pointed across the corridor to a stand where a lady charged an additional municial tax to leave the town. Everybody seems to want their ounce of flesh (at these prices, "pound of flesh" seems like exaggeration). Depending on our mood, this can either be mildly amusing or mildly annoying.

Visiting Lake Titicaca and La Paz also helped allow us formulate the following generalizations which seem to have governed our travels in Bolivia so far:

1. Yes, things are cheaper here.
2. No, buses will not be arriving in accordance with posted schedules, if at all, and those that do arrive will be driven quite quickly.
3. Villagers in the jungle regions use fire to control vegetation, meaning that most every vista is obscured by smoke at this time of year.
4. "Bolivia Belly" is real and coming to a stomach near you early and often.

Lake Titicaca

We raced through the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca and skipped the islands that are reachable from the main Peruvian port of Puno. We had heard various accounts that the Peruvian side had become incredibly commercialized in recent years, which was apparently confirmed when some travel companions told us the locals were singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" to them as they arrived to one of the islands. Instead, we set up shop on the Bolivian side in the peaceful town of Copacabana.

After we unpacked, I immediately headed to the shores of Lake Titicaca with my speedo on tight and Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” blasting in my iPod, looking for bikinis and a good time. You can imagine my disappointment when I was discovered that not only was this not the Copacabana Barry was singing about, but that the lyrics to the song have nothing to do with the beach and are actually quite depressing. Huge buzz kill. What I found at the beach were people dressed in warm jackets and these peculiar, swan-themed paddle boats everywhere. I switched my iPod over to the Stones' "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" and sauntered dejectedly back to our hostal.

Thankfully, the town and its easy vibe proved to be a pleasant spot to begin soaking up the Bolivian lifestyle and my frown was turned upside down. Adding to the enjoyment was the reunion with our favourite German couple, Veit and Meike, whom we hadn’t seen since Colombia. They sent us a rough itinerary of their time in Bolivia before our arrival and, since we never seem to have concrete plans of our own here, we find that we're effectively copying theirs. As such, if we get behind in our posts, you can check out their blog (particularly rewarding if you can read German) to see how we’re doing.

The highlight of our visit to Copacabana was our day/night trip (with Veit and Meike, of course) to the nearby Isla del Sol. According to local legend, Isla del Sol gave rise to the first Inca and is the birthplace of the sun. From what little I know of the cosmos, I believe this to be somewhat in contradiction to the Big Bang Theory, but I'm not looking to choose sides. At 4000 metres above sea level, I think everyone can agree that even if the sun wasn't born on the Island, it likely keeps a summer home in the area, because it sure never seemed to be very far away. In a pleasant seven-hour walking loop, we managed to see most of the Island, checked out some nice beaches where locals swam and washed clothes, passed some small Inca sites, found a hostal with a view of the water, and took in a pretty sunset after a couple of big beers. Not a bad way to spend a Thursday.

La Paz

La Paz is the highest capital city in the world and the city that Kristin, somewhat randomly, picked out several months back as the place that she was most excited to visit. Her excitement reached a fever pitch in the days and weeks leading up to our arrival as she again and again promised me that we would be able to get everything our hearts desired "once we reach La Paz". That turned out to be slightly misleading, but the city had significant charm and we enjoyed our four nights there immensely

We actually arrived in La Paz twice - once by bus and once in a small plane returning from Rurrenabaque (which I'll touch upon in a future post about our trip to the Amazon Basin). I'll never forget either. People use words like "awe-inspring", "breathtaking" or "jaw-dropping" pretty liberally when describing places they visit in their travels, but rolling along the altiplano and through the neighbouring town of El Alto in our bus (at nearly 4150 metres) and then coming across the drop-off into the city of La Paz below (down to lows of approximatley 3000 metres) seems worthy of whichever of those aforementioned descriptions is your personal favourite. We never did head back up to the top to get a stationary picture of the view (and came away with surprisingly few good pictures from our time in the city), but it was more than spectacular.

Maybe my favourite thing about La Paz is that its long, main street (El Prado) managed to provide many of the goods, services and public facilities that one would hope for in any large, international city, but so many of its side streets (particularly where we stayed) managed to maintain a small-town aura and feel completely Bolivian. I'm not sure how many times we ventured up and down the main drag (walking back up the hill was tiring) only to stumble across some sort of fair, market or festival. With the exception of Sunday night, there was always something to see. Also, ducking off El Prado allowed us to venture into different small neighbourhoods where we explored numerous small markets and our favourite Bolivian snacking option - the salteƱa (pictured above).

You can see our pictures from Lake Titicaca and La Paz here.


  1. Thanks for linking our blog (english version is in progress - approx. due date 2014). We enjoy very much the time together with you guys and are looking forward to spend cold nights with a lot of red wine the next days in the Salar de Uyuni and Atacama desert.
    See you tomorrow!
    Meike and Veit

  2. Whoa, whoa, whoa... the nights are going to be cold? I only agreed to go to a desert because I assumed it would be hot. This changes everything...