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#25: Lake Titicaca Part 1 (Uros, Amantaní & Taquile) – Peru

1st-2nd November 2018

Situated on the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is both the largest lake in South American and also, at 3,800 meters altitude, the highest navigable lake in the world. It has a rich history, having been inhabited by many cultures – including the Tiwanaku people – for thousands of years before the Incas came, and many ancient relics to this area’s spiritual past remain.

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This was my final week in Peru and I began it with a two-day boat journey through the lake. The boat I was cruising on took us first to the Uros archipelago. A community of floating, man-made islands made out of reeds. Each one is home to a small extended family and they form a complex network, either connected to each other directly or within close proximity.

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It is said that these people originated from the Amazon, from which they were driven out hundreds of years ago. Having no land to call their home, they created their own. The islands are mobile and they used to dwell deeper within the lake but now, having achieved a more peaceful existence with the people who live upon the shore, they have moved closer to the port town of Puno where they supplement their living on tourism and selling handicrafts.

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As a tourist, your time on Uros is very structured. You are not really allowed to wander freely and are taken to a small part of it chosen by the community. The amount of time you spend is also designated by the captain of your boat. One of the locals comes out, tells you a little about their lives, and then you get some time to browse the shops some of the inhabitants have set up.

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I am not saying this as a complaint. It was still interesting to see, even if you didn’t feel like you get to know the place and its people properly. I have seen a lot of people online complaining about this place being too ‘touristy’ and, to be quite frank, those people need to get a grip. What exactly are you expecting? You are a tourist. One out of dozens who come to a very small place each day to walk among them. Of course they are going to control where you go and try to sell you things. What other benefit are they going to get out of you nosing into their life? Minority cultures don’t exist solely for the curiosity of white people.

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After our time in Uros, we got back onto the boat and sailed deeper into the lake, passing through a channel between the beds of reeds. We saw lots of birdlife. Within an hour or so, something appeared on the horizon and it got bigger and bigger. It was the Island of Amantaní, where we were staying that night.

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Amantaní is a small island, mostly populated by Quechua-speaking farmers who have lived there for generations. There are no hotels, restaurants or cars, only homestays, which the Elders allocate to visitors on a rotating system. I was given my own room, which was surprisingly comfortable, but there was no electricity or hot water (not that I am complaining, simplicity is what I came here for). The woman who looked after me also provided me and the other guests with meals.

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After lunch, I went out and explored the island by foot.

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Despite how small this island is, it is surprisingly tiring to wander around. It is hilly and sits at an altitude of 3,800 to 4,100 meters, leaving you breathless at times. The sun is very strong too.

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First I walked to Pachatata, a peak which is home to some old Tiwanaku ruins which are still in use by locals for folk-ceremonies today.

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And then I walked to Amantaní’s highest peak of all, Pachamama, which had more ancient ruins and some wonderful views. One of my favourite sights was this photo I took.

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Amantaní has many Tiwanaku-style stone arches framing the pathways and this is one of them. In the background, you can see Pachatata, and then, beyond that, the white peaks of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia. An area I intend to explore in the coming weeks.

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Most visitors to the island remain at Pachamama till dusk to watch the sunset, but I didn’t see much point in that because it was cloudy. I walked back to the main plaza. The temperature plummeted and it quickly became chilly. On the way, I popped into a small bar and had a beer before I returned to the homestay for dinner.

I slept very well that night. At one point I needed to get up to use the toilet and saw one of the starriest skies I have ever glimpsed. In the morning, our host made us a quick breakfast and then we were back on the boat again.

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We went to visit another island called Taquile that morning. Our captain dropped us off at the northern tip and then picked us up from the other side later that day, allowing us to walk its length.

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Taquile was a little more touristy and yet also more scenic than Amantaní. Amantaní gets fewer visitors, and the ones who do come mostly stay overnight, whereas Taquile mostly just gets day-trippers. It is steeper too. Not many people seem to bother walking up to its highest peak, which is a shame because it was probably my favourite place on these islands so far, and the walk had stunning views.

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There was yet another temple at the top, which also showed signs that it was still in use by the locals today.

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After lunch, I went to the dock where the boat was waiting to take me back to Puno.

 

For more photos from Lake Titicaca, click here.

Travelblog SA#21: Cusco & The Sacred Valley Part 1 – Peru

15th-18th October 2018

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You would think that I’d have grown bored of historic highland cities by this point, but I was certainly glad I saved Cuzco for later in my trip because it topped them all. Once the old capital of the Incas, and then after, a colonial centre, it is a city with multiple layers and, as you wander around its streets and alleys, there is always something which catches your eye. Some of its original walls, built by the Incas, still stand today, and they were so masterfully shaped to fit into each other they baffle historians. I have not been to a city that I can be so happy to just freely wander and get lost within, since Kathmandu in Nepal.

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Cuzco has many sites to see but most are ones you need the boleto turistico for. This ticket is initially expensive but allows you to wander around dozens of museums and ruins not just within the city itself but the entire Sacred Valley. It has a time limit though, so it didn’t make any sense for me to buy one yet as I was heading to do the Salkantay trek in just a few days.

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There were a few places within the city which can be visited independently of the boleto turistico though, such as the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, which I was very impressed by. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I have a fascination with history but even I have to admit that sometimes endless cases filled ceramics and artefacts can bore me. This museum is one of those places which manages to make ancient relics engaging. They concentrate on quality rather than quantity and every single item they put on display is fully annotated with information of its context.

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They also have an audio guide (which costs extra but I highly recommend) and have divided the rooms of the museum in a way which takes you on a journey through Peru’s different pre-colonial civilisations. Many ones I had encountered before during the last six weeks. It was great to have a museum which brought them all together into a meta-narrative.

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Qorikancha was another attraction I went to see. Being a Christian monastery built over the ruins of an old Inca palace, you could almost say it is the very epitome of Cuzco itself.

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Although they might not look like much now, these bare-looking stone chambers within what is now one of the central courtyards of the monastery were once an astronomical observatory and series of temples. All of them were completely covered in gold, the recesses in the walls were filled with offerings to the gods and even the space in the middle was filled with shining statues. When the conquistadors arrived they were said to have been awestruck but that didn’t stop them having all of the gold melted down as part of the ransom for Atahualpa’s – the last Inca emperor – life, and building a church on top of its foundations.

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Interestingly, despite the Convent of Santo Domingo’s shady beginning, the monks of this place eventually took a more humanitarian approach later down the line and became advocates for indigenous rights and even helped to catalogue some of their myths and traditions. The modern convent, as it now stands, is host to a collection of colonial religious art where one can see some of conscious steps the clergy made to lure the natives into Christendom as part of the development of Peru’s mestizo culture, such as paintings depicting Jesus as dark-skinned, several examples of Incan deities assimilated with Christian saints, figures such as Mary chewing cocoa leaf, and even Inca-presenting women (in both features and attire) present in the biblical scenes.

 

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESUnfortunately, I can’t show you any examples of this as I was not permitted to take any photos of the artwork, nor the church of Santo Domingo itself (which is unfortunate, as it has a wonderful interior and great atmosphere), as well as a few other religious spaces within Convent grounds. This is probably the only criticism I have of the place, but I did find it to be a bit of a double-standard on their part, as they have no problem at all with you taking snaps of the ruins of a sacred Inca site they built over.

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Otherwise, I found Qorikancha a wonderful attraction. It is a great place to help gain insight into the history of not just the grounds, but Cusco itself, and the addition of an audio-guide you can download onto your phone enriches the experience. It is one of the cheaper attractions to see in Cusco and great value considering the amount of effort they have put into making it engaging for people.

I wish I could say the same thing about Cusco’s cathedral, which I had planned to visit that too but decided against it when I found out the quite frankly disgusting entry fee they are charging people now.

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Not many people pass through Cuzco these days without going to see Rainbow Mountain, which says something of its allure considering it is a very new attraction and not even made it into the current version of the Lonely Planet yet.

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All the tours which go there leave very early in the morning as it is quite far away. During the journey you from an altitude of 3400 meters to over 5000, and almost everyone will feel some degree of altitude sickness when the bus arrives at the car park where they have to finish the last leg of the journey by foot. All of the tour guides carry oxygen tanks and medication with them and the walk takes about one to two hours depending upon your fitness level. Many people end up hiring a horse to carry them and some even have to turn back.

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The views, before you even reach the ‘rainbow’ part, are stunning. Which is good, as taking photos gives you an opportunity to catch your breath.

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When you reach the top, the real struggle is then managing to get a decent snap of the view between all the crowds of people posing in front of it

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It was shortly after this photo was taken that something I was certainly not expecting happened to me.

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A storm was approaching – we had heard some rumbles nearby just a few moments ago – we were suddenly enveloped within a cloud of mist. The rumbling repeated, this time directly above us.

And then I felt something strike my head. There was a snapping sound, and it was followed by a weird sensation. I put my hand to my head where I’d felt it and a weird crackling sound spread across my scalp. Several people were staring at me and it took me a few moments to realise what had just happened.

I had been struck by lightning.

I mean, it obviously wasn’t a particularly big one, otherwise I would have been in trouble, but still, I think it’s quite cool that I am now one of a small number of the population who can say such a thing.

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It happened so quickly and I didn’t really have too much time to dwell on it because we were then engulfed in a snowstorm. Cold winds came, and with them, heavy snow. I wrapped myself in my coat and covered up my backpack. Within a just a few minutes, the Rainbow Mountain was white and its colours could no longer be admired. The winds were so bitterly cold I decided to start making my way back down to the car park. On my way, I passed people who were still on their way up and felt sorry for them, not only were they having to finish the ascent within a storm but they were not going to be able to see the mountain at its best.

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The next day I got ready for the next step of my journey, the Salkantay trek, which will involve four days of hiking through mountains of the sacred valley and ultimately conclude with me seeing Machu Picchu.

I will be returning to Cusco though, and when I do there are plenty of other sites I plan on seeing.

 

For more photos, click here.