Travelblog SA#28: La Paz – Bolivia

9th-12th November 2018

La Paz, the highest administrative capital in the world. Its official attitude sits at 3,600 meters, but in reality when you are here chances are you could be much higher than that, as it is perched within towering peaks. It’s airport, based in a district known as ‘El Alto’, is 4,100.

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I will begin with the journey there from Copacabana. On the bus I often found my eyes drawn away from the book I was reading to the window as we circled the shore of the lake. At one point the bus began to sway and I was startled to see we were completely surrounded by water. The bus was floating upon a small vessel, being carried to the other side. From there, we ventured up into the mountains for a period of time until we crossed a threshold and were suddenly on a flat, desert-like plane which stretched for miles and miles with only the icy peaks of the Cordillera Real to be seen on the horizon.

As soon as you reach La Paz you are plunged into chaos. The bus crawls its way through unruly traffic on old roads full of potholes, but you are not overly upset about it because it is a vibrant city with lots of street markets.  I even spotted a group of people praying by a small outdoor altar with burning incense.

I was tired the day I arrived and I had things to catch up with online. The wifi in La Paz was somewhat more functional than in Copacabana but still painfully slow. I was staying in a small B&B on the tenth floor of a tower block overlooking the centre. It was a cosy little place with a kitchen, bathroom, two private rooms and one dorm with just four beds. The lady who owned it was helpful and one of the other guys staying there I had met previously before in Ollantaytambo, so I felt at home.

The next morning I began exploring. I started with the sights near to the central plaza. The cathedral is a little empty and bare, but it is the nearby Iglesia San Franciso which is the real nucleus of religious life. I have noticed so far during my time in  Bolivia that, unlike Peru, all of its churches have been free to enter.

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Next to the church there is a museum where you can wander some of the halls of the old Franciscan Monastery. To be honest, there isn’t a great amount to see in there, but the entry does come with a free tour and the guides are helpful and inform you of some of the area’s history.

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I went to visit El Mercado de las Brujas (Witches Market). A place where one can buy all sorts of remedies, potions, herbs, and even some more gruesome ingredients such as llama foetuses from old ladies if you wish. It was interesting to browse for a while, but it seems the street is beginning to be taken over by travel agencies and stalls selling tat which is somewhat polluting the ambience.

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I spent the rest of that day in museums. The Museo Nacional de Etnografia y Folklore had a wonderful collection of ceremonial masks and examples of weaving, pottery, featherwork and all over affair from the different regions of Bolivia. It is a lovely way to spend an hour and soak up Bolivia’s wonderfully diverse culture, but I did come out of there feeling a little peeved that, despite them acknowledging their foreign visitors in a monetary way, by having a perfectly-translated list of rules and entry prices at reception and charging us four times the amount they do nationals, once you have bought your ticket, you discover that none of its displays has any information in English.

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The Museo Nacional de Arte was technically closed that day because they had a temporary exhibition by contemporary artists from all over Latin America. This event was free entry and, once inside, I managed to see some of the museum’s permanent displays too because the doors were left open.

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The next day I set off early in a crowded minivan to see Bolivia’s most important archaeological site, Tiwanaku.

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Pre-dating the Incas by hundreds of years, the Tiwanaku people are one of the most interesting in all civilisations of South America. From their humble origins on the shores of Lake Titicaca, they managed to spread across a vast region encompassing parts of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, and what makes that even more of an enigma is that archaeological evidence suggests that this expansion was achieved peacefully with very little warfare.

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This site was their nexus during the civilisation’s golden age. Its stones were carved from quarries in Lake Titicaca and hauled all the way up by a very early canal system. It is thought they chose this location, despite its harsh location, climate and lack of fertile soil, because the Tiwanaku were astronomers and it is situated upon a flat plane, allowing them to better observe the movements of the stars. Indeed, one of the pyramids they built – now not more than a mound surrounded by some vestigial walls – was thought to have had a pool on its roof for their holy men to see the night sky in its reflection, and there is also the Sun Gate which acted as a primitive calendar.

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The Tiwanaku people did not meet their end through being conquered but experienced a long period of drought, during which their civilisation dwindled. The ones who survived retreated into little villages because life was so hard they no longer had the luxury to build monuments or map the universe. Tiwanaku was abandoned, but many of its people were swept up by the Incas and I don’t think there is much mystery – particularly when you see sights such as the nearby Puma Punku – as to whom they learned their master stone-crafting techniques from.

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On the way back to La Paz, instead of being caught in all the traffic again I got off the bus and used one of its cable car systems to reach the centre. It was a wonderful way to see the cityscape, passing over all of its rugged peaks and outer neighbourhoods. I even got to see the famous market in El Alto, said to be one of the biggest in Latin America.

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On my final day of exploring La Paz, I went for a little trip to Valle de la Luna which was just a short bus ride away and had some very interesting formations. It was a great way to spend my last morning before I prepared for the El Choro trek, which is what my next blog will be about.

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For more photos from La Paz, click here.

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Travelblog SA#27: Lake Titicaca Part 3 (Copacabana, Isla del Sol & Isla de la Luna) – Bolivia

6th-8th November 2018

For the third part of my time in Lake Titicaca, I crossed over the border into Bolivia. A country I will spend the next five weeks exploring. I swiftly noticed a very different ambience in the air. Bolivia’s standard of living is lower than Peru’s, and it was like travelling back in time a little. The streets looked older and were a little less maintained. Hotels advertised that they had hot water like it was a luxury. Men pushed wheelbarrows filled with vegetables down the street. There was a certain charm to it all. Not that I am glamorising poverty, I just think that everywhere has its own allure and countries shouldn’t be written off just because they are not quite as clean and comfortable by first-world standards.

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Copacabana, the primary base for exploring Lake Titicaca from the Bolivian side, is quite different to Puno. It is just a small town and, whereas Puno has multiple industries, Copacabana seems to survive almost exclusively from tourism. It was certainly much more postcard-worthy. I particularly liked its cathedral just by the main plaza and it was the first place I visited.

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My first day, I focused upon exploring the sights just a stone’s throw away. After wandering around the Cathedral, I went to Horca del Inca just outside of the town. It involved a steep climb but there were lots of interesting rock formations along the way.

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As well as wonderful panoramas of Lake Titicaca.

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The main feature of this hike though is an old astronomical observatory. This site has a  misleading name because it is actually a pre-Inca site built by the Chiripa people, who held ceremonies here during the winter solstice when the sun is aligned with the opening in these stones.

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Later in the afternoon, I climbed up Cerro Calvario which is on a peninsula overlooking the lake. It is a famous spot for watching the sunset but on that evening it was cloudy. Bolivia is entering its rainy season, so it is not the best time of the year for clear skies. It is not too wet yet though and one good thing about visiting this time of the year is that it is less crowded.

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There were some great views overlooking the lake though, and the sunset, even if you couldn’t see it fully, did cast some interesting textures on the horizon. I drank my first Paceña – one of Bolivia’s national beers – and watched it for a while before making my way down to Copacabana.

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The next day I went on a day trip to Isla del Sol. Originally I intended to spend the night on this island, but then I found out that most of it is currently closed off due to an ongoing conflict. It seems that tourism, and all the money it brings, has changed this community. Those of you who read my blog regularly will be aware that I am not one to shy away from calling out poor behaviour of first-world people when they visit other countries and how they sometimes ruin them, but this is one of the rare occasions where it appears that the fault of the tourists rests no further than their mere presence, and it is primarily the behaviour of some of the locals which is to blame.

I have both done some research online and spoken to some of the residents of Copacabana about this issue, and it seems there are many complex reasons for the developing of this feud. Tensions did begin, rather predictably, with money. Tourists are charged an admission to enter the island (which is fair enough, as we are coming in hoards and there is a certain amount of maintenance involved when a community gets bombarded by visitors). Eventually, some of the locals began imposing their own extra fees upon visitors walking the pathways which connect the north and south of the island. Because these charges were not actually authorised or regulated by any particular official authority, some of the other locals (quite rightly) got annoyed because this money was just going into the pockets of rather greedy individuals instead of benefitting the community.

Amid this building tension, a catalyst occurred. The story I was told was that some of the members of the northern side of the island built new cabanas for tourists near to a site which members of the central community considered sacred, and then said members of the central community retaliated by blowing up the cabanas with dynamite.

Ever since tourists have only been allowed to the south of the island and both the centre and north have been declared off limits until this feud has been resolved.

With only the south being accessible, it is very debatable whether it is worth spending a night on Isla del Sol now. On places like Tripadvisor people seem very polarised. Half say it is one of the most beautiful places they have been to in South America and staying the night is absolutely compulsory to get the full experience, while the other half say that it is a tourist trap where you get constantly harassed all day and there isn’t much point in staying because most of the island is closed. There isn’t much middle ground…

I was very torn by all this conflicting information, equally driven to stay overnight or just do it as a day trip. What eventually swayed it for me, was finding out about the way the boatmen behave, which I will now explain.

When you buy your ticket from Copacabana to see the islands, the price is quite cheap. A return is only slightly more expensive than a single if you are coming back the same day but, for some reason, they do not sell returns for the following day if you wish to stay overnight. I have heard reports from other gringos that people who stay overnight are often taken advantage of by the boatmen who inflate the price for the journey back by more than 50% of what they paid for their original journey there, knowing that the tourists have no other choice but to pay or be stranded.

So in the end, I decided to leave my stuff behind in Copacabana and just go as a day trip.

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The next morning, I and the other people on the boat were first taken to Isla de la Luna, Isla del Sol’s smaller sister. It was once home to an Inca nunnery of sacred virgins and some of the relics from this epoch remain.

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You are only given an hour on Isla de la Luna but with it being so small it is enough and you have plenty of time to explore the ruins and walk across its spine for some beautiful panoramas. To the west, you can see Isla del Sol.

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To the south, peninsulas from the mainland.

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And, to the east, apparently you can usually see the white peaks of the Cordillera Real, but they were covered in clouds that day.

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After our short time on Isla de la Luna, we got back onto the boat and were taken to Isla del Sol.

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Of all the islands I have been to on Lake Titicaca, Isla del Sol hands-down wins the award for being the most picturesque. There really isn’t any competition.

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During the two hours I was given to wander, I did manage to see most of what the south of this island has to offer. I climbed its two highest peaks, explored Yumani (its main village), and also walked through a forest.

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I didn’t bother walking to Pilko Kaina – the Inca ruins – though, as I saw them from the boat on the way in and they didn’t seem worth the long walk when there were such stunning views everywhere else on the island.

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So  I found the time doing it as a day trip just enough. But if you are reading this trying to make the same decision, bear in mind that I am a fast walker and even I felt a little rushed. A part of me felt that it would have been nice to be able to take my time and relax there overnight, but my wallet was certainly happier that I came to Copacabana, as accommodation and food are much cheaper there. I also didn’t have to deal with the boatmen the next day.

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Did I make the right choice? I am still not sure, to be honest. I can’t give you a straight answer over the ‘stay or go’ argument. Like I said, Isla del Sol is the most beautiful part of Lake Titicaca, but what others have said about it being touristy is also true. Like most places, Isla del Sol is complex. It has many sides to it and many different people you may end up interacting with. And thus, your experience there is partly based on luck and who you bump into. I do hope that Isla del Sol recovers from its rough patch and the community learns to adopt tourism in a healthier way.

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For jaw-dropping beauty, Isla del Sol is a must-see, whether you stay overnight or not but, if you wish to see island culture on Titicaca in a more authentic form, then I do suggest visiting Isla Amantani (on the Peruvian side). Have the best of both worlds and see them both.

 

For more photos from the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, click here. To read about my journey on the Peruvian side click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

Travelblog SA#26: Lake Titicaca Part 2 (Puno Festival) – Peru

3rd-5th November 2018

I arrived in Puno at a great time of the year. They were in the midst of a festival known as ‘la Fiesta Jubilar de Puno’ which commemorates the town’s inception 340 years ago. Parades, concerts, markets, and all other such affairs were taking place, but the main event wasn’t until on the morning of 5th when two people embodying the mythical figures of Manco Cápac and Mama Uqllu – the Adam and Eve of the Inca civilisation – rise out from the lake and march into the city in search of land on which to build their empire.

I still had a couple of days to wait for that but in the meantime, there were other attractions to keep me occupied.

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I went to visit both Cutimbo and Sillustani, two sets of ancient ruins located upon the mountains nearby.

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Cutimbo wasn’t quite as impressive as Sllustani in a structural sense, but it did have the bonus of being home to some primitive cave paintings and it was easily accessible via public transport. The morning I went there I had the entire place to myself, so I got to wander around it alone and connect with its energy in a way which isn’t possible when a place is crowded.

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These edifices are tombs. The Tiwanaku people practised a tradition of ancestor-worship which was later adopted by the Incas too.

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I went to see Sillustani the same day. It is a much busier site than Cutimbo and I was forced to book it as a tour as transport there is difficult. The structures are quite similar only there are more of them.

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There are also some wonderful panoramas of Umayo Lake.

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Another day, I went to Puno’s Carlos Dreyer museum, which was small but charmingly provincial. It was home to lots of ancient relics and a collection of art, both by Dreyer himself and other local artists.

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And then, when the morning of the 5th finally arrived, I walked over to the pier where the ceremony was to begin. I came an hour early but the place was already crowded. I chose a spot and waited.

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Eventually, young women and men dressed into traditional clothing walked out into the road in single file. They had their palms facing outwards (which I am guessing was in reverence to the Sun). Once they passed, we had to wait for a little longer, and then I both saw and heard a commotion coming towards us.

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As you can see in this video, the moments proceeding Manco Cápac, Mama Uqllu and their entourage’s arrival, were a little chaotic. Many of the people in the crowd were shouting and I think it was in complaint about how many people with cameras were hovering around, blocking people from actually seeing the event. And why were there so many police officers, too? It seemed a bit overkill. And, finally, why weren’t the officers – as many of them as there were –  doing their job, and getting the annoying people with cameras to move out of the way?

But, besides from that, this beginning to the festival was very interesting. A man came with burning incense, and people (including myself) placed their hats over the fumes, which I am guessing was some form of blessing. People performed limpias (cleansings) with wreaths and, during those moments, I could feel a very strong religious fervour in the air. It seems that many of the folk traditions from Lake Titicaca’s pre-colonial times are still alive.

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After the initial entourage had passed, there followed a series of parades. People in traditional clothing danced to live music and they came in waves. It seemed to me that each group came to represent a  different district in the area. Here is a short video from the start of it, but if you would like to see more there is a link at the bottom of this blog to my entire album.

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It was over in less than an hour, but it felt longer. People dispersed and I went to have lunch.

Later on that day, I wandered over to the plaza to see if anything was going on and saw people were claiming spaces on the steps outside the cathedral. It looked like something important was about to happen so I sat down.

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I was told by the other people waiting that another parade was due to commence in half an hour but, in true Latin American fashion, it was an hour beyond that before anything actually happened. The first activity was Manco Cápac and Mama Uqllu and their entourage passing through again, and then followed a brass band and cowboys riding Peruvian Paso horses (which are famous for their strange but beautiful gait) (video here).

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After that, nothing happened for a while, but I knew something was coming though because everyone remained were they were sat and stared out into the plaza expectantly.

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Eventually, a series of parades started. At first, the cavalcades all featured small children supervised by adults (video here).

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It was cute, for the first half an hour or so.

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HOW MANY CHILDREN ARE THERE IN PUNO? I thought after an hour had passed.

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I know you are probably thinking that I just don’t like children and am being a grump, and there is possibly some truth to that, but you try watching over an hour of half-awake children bumping into each other and failing at basic choreography, and then tell me you don’t want to tear your hair out.

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I fought back the temptation to ask people around me if this entire parade was going to be just children or there was something else worth waiting for later, but I suspected that it wouldn’t go down very well. I noticed then that most of the audience were middle-aged women, probably all waiting for that moment that it was their child in the parade. I couldn’t see many fathers. Most of them were probably drinking pisco somewhere. It all began to make sense. This was the sort of affair only a mother could love.

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I considered leaving, but I felt compelled to stay just in case it got better. Not just that, but the crowd was so tightly packed by then I couldn’t see a way out. I was wedged in.

It seemed to go on forever. It got to the point that every time a banner appeared at the corner of the plaza – announcing the next school taking part in the procession – I thought. “NOOOO! Please! Not more!”

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“They have trapped me…” I thought, after almost two hours had passed. “I am not going to make to Bolivia or Chile… I am not going to see my boyfriend, friends, or family ever again. I am going to grow old and die here…”

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Eventually, after what seemed an eternity, the children taking part in the parades became a little older in age and their performances improved. To be fair, this one (video here) was actually really good. It inspired me to stay longer, but eventually, I realised that it was an exception. Most of them were still rather lacklustre.

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“Maybe the schools with bad parades are focussing their energy on the sciences, and they will produce great minds…” I told myself. It helped me get through a little longer.

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But then, a few minutes later, I saw this rather lazy tribute to the fire services. It broke me.

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I got up. The crowd had thinned a little by then (I guess I am not the only one who got a little bored) so I managed to get out.

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But the thing is, as I was walking away from the plaza, I passed some of the upcoming parades and some were good again, so I found myself lingering.

I eventually developed a system. If the parade was good, I stayed and watched. If it was bad, I travelled into the future by walking further up the road to see the next one. It was a good system.

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For a while, I was on a narrow street. The dancers didn’t have as much room there, so I suspect they were not at their best, but it was nice to see it this way for a while because it was a more immersive experience (video here).

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“This is what I came here for!” I thought when I reached Parque Pino (video here). I stayed there for a while and watched some performances from outside San Juan Church.

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Admittedly, I didn’t stay till the very end, but I think I was pretty close. It had been over five hours since I originally sat outside that stop outside the cathedral by the time I left, and it was well into the evening. I was tired, it was getting cold (I had not brought a jacket out with me) and I was needing to go to the toilet quite badly so I went back to my hostel.

Puno Festival was an awesome way to finish off my time in Peru and I am very glad I plotted my itinerary so that I was passing through there at that time. I know I may have complained about parts of it being a slog, but some of my comments were tongue in cheek and, no matter how ropey some of the choreography was, the costumes were almost always interesting.

The next day I was crossing over the border into Bolivia, marking a new chapter in my journey.

 

I have only shared a small amount of the videos I took from Puno festival here, to see more of them (as well as photos from other parts of Lake Titicaca) click on this link.

To read the first part of my time in Lake Titicaca, click here.