Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Where the sun was born & more of beautiful Bolivia

But first, as promised, here's a look at our palatial accommodation at Las Olas and some views of the Copacabana bay on Lake Titicaca.

One of many gorgeous sunsets viewed from our "upstairs sitting room".

Chris making friends with a stray kitten that wandered onto our front step.
After a relaxing week in our castle at Las Olas it was difficult to fathom moving on. Or moving at all really. But we decided to visit the main tourist attraction of the area - Isla del Sol - before leaving Copacabana for La Paz. We boarded a boat early in the morning with a couple dozen other travellers and set out for the north of the island. It was a slow, chilly 2-hour trip but the views were gorgeous and it gave us a chance to make friends with two other couples: Scott and Katherine from the US and Gerald and Rachel from Germany and New Zealand, respectively. They were all heading north from Copacabana so we exchanged travel tips for the destinations we'd each been to and those Chris and I were planning to head to.

We reached the island just as the sun was starting to take some of the chill from the air and docked along a beautiful sandy beach lapped by the crisp water of Lake Titicaca. Several locals greeted us as we made our way from the dock, proffering accommodations for the night but we'd decided to walk the length of the island and stay overnight in a town on the south end. Our new friends were planning the same thing so we grouped up for the hike.

The island was quite hilly but it wasn't too challenging of a hike. Well, it wasn't exactly a breeze for Chris because he was still suffering from the chest cold and cough but he toughed it out. We climbed higher, heading north towards a set of ruins and a sacred rock where it looked like rituals of some sort are still carried out to this day. The views were incredible (I seem to use that phrase or something similar in every blog, don't I?). We had panoramic views of the lake and were able to see distant snow-capped mountains towering far above the clouds on the mainland. It was a surreal scene. The lake itself is at ~3800 m above sea level and these looked like full-size mountains with their bases nearly flush with the lake. I can't imagine trying to summit one of those mountains. The air was thin enough on the island!

Rachel and Gerald strolling ahead of us. It was their anniversary!
It took a few hours to reach the south part of the island. As we approached the town and paid our passage through the final checkpoint (there were 3 in total: north, south, and the town of Yumani) a young boy fell in step with me and asked if we were looking for accommodation. I said yes and he recited the specifics of the property he was evidently representing. He then repeated it in English just to be sure I'd understood. It sounded fine and the price was right (30 bolivianos per person = less than $5) so we agreed to check it out. The small hostel was deemed suitable and there were exactly enough rooms to accommodate 3 couples. I teased the boy that it was a good day for him - filling all their rooms in one trip to the trail to pick up travellers. He giggled and then shyly asked for a tip. Haha! We gave him 6 bolivianos - a super good day for him!

We walked a bit further into the town to find something to eat and settled on a restaurant with outdoor tables overlooking the water from high up on the ridge. The town itself spilled down the other side of the ridge to a small bay where we'd catch our boat back to Copacabana. We sat in the now reasonably warm sunshine, enjoying a beer and a Bolivian style Hawaiian pizza (ham, pineapple and canned cherries). For sunset we hiked up from town to a viewpoint where there were 360 degree views of the lake. We'd seen some pretty gorgeous sunsets  from Copacabana so we were hoping for good colors on the island. We weren't disappointed. We did have to jostle with an enormous group of German tourists to get a good viewing position...

Look at those mountains in the clouds!! Seriously, we were already at more almost 4000 meters! So tall!

After sunset Chris was exhausted from the day of exertion while fighting his cold so he basically went straight to bed. I'd planned to join the others for dinner but soon succumbed to sleep myself after hunkering down beneath the blankets to escape the frigid air. The next morning, after a quick breakfast, we descended to the docks and bought passage back to Copacabana, reuniting with our friends before departure. Once back in Copacabana we said our good-byes and boarded a bus for La Paz while our friends headed for Peru.

The drive to La Paz was pretty and not terribly eventful. Slightly disconcerting was the stop at a "mechanic" where a child of no more than 8 sauntered out in coveralls and proceeded to conduct some maintenance on the tires. A little further down the road we reached a town bisected by a river (or maybe part of Lake Titicaca) and were instructed to get off the bus. I couldn't really understand what the driver was saying but our friends from Isla del Sol had mentioned that there was a ferry crossing on the route to La Paz. It turned out that we had to buy tickets to take a boat across while our bus was loaded onto a ferry (more like a raft) to complete the crossing. Interesting. I'm not going to lie when I say I was a little nervous being separated from our bags but it all worked out and we made it to La Paz a few hours later.

On our first day in La Paz we visited the coca museum for an overview of the history, cultural significance, agricultural practices, controversy, and evolution of all things coca. I'd learned some of it in a drug plants class I took at University but it was still really interesting. The next day Chris's symptoms had worsened and he didn't feel up to going out anywhere that day or the next. I ventured out a few times, walking the chaotic streets of the center and sitting in various plazas to surreptitiously watch people go about their daily lives. I wouldn't exactly call La Paz beautiful but it did have some colorful plazas surrounded by pristine colonial buildings. Meals were outrageously cheap, especially if you ordered the menu of the day. These typically included bread, a starter/appetizer, soup, hot main dish, and dessert. It was copious amounts of food, good food, all for 15 to 25 bolivianos ($2-4). Sadly they were not available for take-out so I had to bring Chris a sandwich that cost 30 bolivianos all by itself. Crazy how much more expensive a la carte items are! We also indulged in our fair share of salteñas: saucy pastries stuffed with meat, onions, cheese, olives, hard boiled egg, spices and herbs. So yummy.

With Chris not improving and starting to run a fever off and on we decided it was time to visit a doctor. We booked an appointment with a guy recommended in our guide book and took a taxi to his office in the affluent Zona Sur of La Paz. Well, in truth, the taxi driver dropped us off with the instruction that it was "just around the corner". But it wasn't. We've discovered that this often happens when the driver can't find the place - they pretend it's nearby to get you to pay and exit the vehicle so they can make a hasty escape before you realize you're not where you want to be. Grrr. We wandered around hunting without success for a while and then started asking for directions. Eventually we found the office, several blocks from where the taxi had dropped us off. Nice.

The office was nothing like the clinic(s) I'd visited in Cusco. It was immaculate and fancy. The doctor's office was actually an office, not an exam room. He was thorough and certainly seemed competent although his extensive library of reference books and plethora of certificates indicated oncology, hematology and gastroenterology were his specialties. Talk about over qualified to be taking walk-ins for general consults. He didn't actually provide a diagnosis but he did give Chris a prescription for antibiotics, cough suppressant, and a nasal spray. He also advised that we spend a few extra days in La Paz in case Chris needed further medical attention. We picked up the medications and obediently extended our stay for two more nights.

Chris didn't get much better in those two days but he didn't seem to get worse either. Sadly, we have no photos of our stay in La Paz because I didn't feel safe/competent taking the camera out on my own and Chris stayed in trying to recover. We decided to fly to our next destination, Sucre, in order to avoid a long bus trip that might make Chris feel even more sick. Booking the day before meant that our only option was to fly with TAM, Bolivia's military airline. TAM flights leave from the military airport rather than the main airport in El Alto (the city literally above La Paz). This was a bit of an experience... our flight left early in the morning so we arrived at the airport before daylight. And before most of the staff arrived. It was freezing cold and most of the lights were still off. Although our flight was scheduled to leave at 8 they didn't even start checking people in until that time. However, there was no security checkpoint so it didn't take long to load the plane after we'd all checked in. Interesting that there was no security check on a military base... I'd wondered if it was going to be a military style plane, more for transport of equipment than people with just the bare-bones frame for an interior and seats lining the walls instead of in rows. But it was just a normal plane.

Sucre, which also bears the moniker "the White City" was once the capital of Bolivia before La Paz usurped that title. Unlike Arequipa, many of the government and religious buildings in the center of Sucre are actually white. The city has been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of the beautiful architecture. It seems the people take pride in this and make an effort to maintain the buildings. In truth, more of the buildings are red on account of the adobe bricks used for their construction (a common theme in Bolivia). I think they're quite pretty too.

Our first few days in Sucre were low key. Chris was tired and still not feeling well so he stayed in our room aside from going out to eat. I went exploring and found a few nice parks (one park had small-scale replicas of the Eiffel tower and the Arc de Triomphe) and checked out a chocolate festival that was being held in honor of Mother's Day, which happens later in Bolivia than at home. Once Chris finally started to show signs of improvement we walked up to a mirador (viewpoint) overlooking the city and had lunch at a nice cafe with outdoor seating. Unfortunately the bridge behind the cafe must also serve as a convenient urinal, perhaps for those wandering home from the bar in the wee hours of the morning, because the sour smell wafting through the patio area was a bit of an appetite killer.

Mirador overlooking the city of Sucre.

Chris was still feeling some symptoms of the infection but had completed his course of antibiotics and used up the cough medicine. We visited a pharmacy in search of more of the latter but they didn't have the same type. They managed to convince us to buy one with codeine but we weren't too optimistic regarding its efficacy. Chris also thought it would be a good idea to pick up a thermometer so we'd have a better gauge than my wrist for determining whether or not he actually had a fever. We went to another pharmacy and, not knowing the Spanish word for thermometer, I began trying to describe what we wanted using a combination of Spanish and charades. At first the pharmacist thought we wanted medication for a fever but I finally managed to convey that we wanted to measure the fever and she exclaimed, "Ahh, termómetro!" Oh. Yes, that. Who knew the word would be almost the same?

After much deliberation we decided we would invest in a trip east to Santa Cruz for the purpose of visiting the small village of Samaipata in the low Andes near the Amazon Basin. We opted to pay the $130 for a round-trip flight versus taking the bus for 15-20 hours per way. Turned out to be an extra good decision after we heard the tales of woe from other travellers who'd come by land. Although our flight wasn't exactly awesome either. It was a really windy day so we had a lot of turbulence. We also had an unexpected stop in Cochabamba, which was scary because it was only about 30 minutes from Sucre and I could tell the plane was going down but knew it was far too soon to be Santa Cruz... The travel agent who'd sold us the tickets never mentioned the stopover (and yes, we had to deplane, walk into the terminal, go through security, and then walk back out to the tarmac to the plane that was 100 m from the plane we'd arrived on). Nevertheless, we made it to Santa Cruz in a total of about 4 hours including wait time at the Sucre and Cochabamba airports. Much less than the bus trip would've taken!

Getting off the plane in Santa Cruz we were hit with a wall of humid heat reminiscent of Costa Rica or the jungle. It hadn't been that cold in Sucre but I was happy to be warm again. We opted to take public transportation from the airport into the city since it was much cheaper than getting a taxi (12 versus 50 bolivianos). It backfired a bit because we had no idea where we were when we got dropped off. Santa Cruz is a big city (1.5 million) and going to "the center" wasn't quite as straightforward as we'd hoped. After trying unsuccessfully to figure out where we were on the tiny maps of our electronic guide book we gave up and hired a taxi to take us to the hotel we'd selected. Overall it still ended up costing us less than taking a taxi straight from the airport but I'm not sure the savings of a few dollars was worth sweating in the heat with all our luggage. All part of the travelling experience though I suppose!

We'd planned to spend 2 nights in Santa Cruz to give us one full day to run some errands and stock up on supplies before heading to Samaipata. We ended up not having much success locating the supplies we wanted, which was strange considering that Santa Cruz is a big city. We did end up seeing two movies at a theater near the plaza (The Avengers and Men in Black 3) and visiting the zoo, all of which were rather enjoyable.

Food or friend? This chick doesn't know how precarious its position is. 

The next morning we took a taxi to the departure point for shared taxis to Samaipata. There was already one person waiting but we needed a forth before the taxi would leave. Chris and I decided to wait for about half an hour and if no one else showed up we'd pay for the extra seat so we could get going. It was only about $4.50 per person anyway. We did end up paying the extra but it meant that we got the entire back seat to ourselves, which was nice. I thought the drive was quite pretty, passing through several small towns enveloped in jungle. There were also a surprising number of fancy resorts (apparently these were built during the oil "boom"). Random fact: several vehicles in Bolivia run on natural gas. I've never even heard of that! We only discovered this when we had to get out of the vehicle at the gas station and watched them fill up the tank.

We reached Samaipata after about 3 hours. The last third of the trip was very windy and our driver didn't seem to want to waste any time slowing down around the curves so Chris wasn't feeling great. Our hostel, Posada del Sol, was a welcome refuge. A small building with rooms facing onto a gorgeous garden area and views of the surrounding hillsides. One of the owners, Trent, is originally from Texas and there were a lot of home-like comforts built in to the hostel. We also enjoyed the restaurant, which featured several tasty Tex-Mex items. A major disappointment was that the hostel didn't have wifi. Not that we are internet junkies (okay maybe a bit) but Chris's sister was due to have her baby any day so we wanted to be connected. There was an internet cafe near the town plaza so we began checking in a few times a day to see if there was any baby news.

We met an American couple at our hostel and decided to find a tour to do some hiking with them. After popping into a few agencies we met Frank, a quirky German expat and owner of Roadrunner tours. We'd also run into another guy from our hostel who was interested in doing a hike and we all agreed that Frank was the best option so we booked with him for the following morning. Chris and I swung by the internet cafe on our way back to the hostel and were elated to discover that Jill had had the baby! Miles Julian was born right around the time we were arranging our tour, ironically at almost the exact moment I'd made a joke that Frank's wife was having a baby while he negotiated a deal (she was actually just at an appointment with her obstetrician, due in a few months, but she kept calling Frank while we were in his office). Miles looks very cute and we are excited to meet him when we are home at Christmas time.

The morning of our hike brought the first real sunshine we'd seen since arriving in Samaipata. It also brought crazy wind. Undiscouraged, we piled into Frank's 4x4 and got to know him and the others as we drove out to the trailhead. We hiked up for two hours in the howling wind to reach a viewpoint where we could see for kilometers out across the Andes and towards the Amazon basin. It was beautiful and even the wind was rather welcome because it kept us cool in the sunshine. We'd packed a lunch and at it at a slightly sheltered spot just down from the viewpoint. Then we continued on, making our way through two types of forest, differentiated by the types of flora that comprise them as a result of their different altitudes. One of the forests had the region's unique tree ferns that can grow to be more than 10 meters tall. This takes hundreds of years because the ferns only grow millimeters annually. We saw birds but no mammals or other wildlife. We looped back to Frank's 4x4 and drove down to a small store by the main hiway where we had a beer before returning to Samaipata. It was a good day.

Waterfall enroute to our hike's starting point.

Lunch break, slightly out of the wind but still in the lovely sunshine!

Debating whether to take the more challenging route that would take us down along the cliff to the right. We chose it and could barely keep our footing in the crazy wind. I smashed my knee while climbing up the rocks but it bled way more than was justified by such a tiny scrape.

On the drive home Chris remembered to ask Frank about a guide that our friend Thom had hired when he was in Samaipata a few years ago. According to Frank, Rufo had been moonlighting as a drug trafficker (or maybe he was moonlighting as a guide?) and had fled town when he got wind that the cops were onto him. Apparently he abandoned his family and left in such a rush that more than $100,000 in cash was found in his house when the police searched it later. Sounds like he would've made an interesting guide.

The primary attraction at Samaipata is El Fuerte - an archaeological site at the top of a mountain a few kilometers outside of town. The sandstone peak of the mountain was carved with figures of animals of spiritual significance in the year 300 AD and was later carved by Inca people who also constructed buildings in the area. It is still an active site and most of the ruins have not yet been uncovered. A major problem is the susceptibility of the sandstone to weathering. Many of the original carvings are no longer discernible and there is speculation that it won't be much longer before El Fuerte just looks like a massive rock slab again. We took a tour of the site with a group of Israelis and found it alright but not overly exciting. We'd decided to walk the 10 km back to Samaipata instead of paying a taxi to wait for us but shortly after we reached the hiway (about 7 km into the journey) we were picked up by the American couple who were returning from a tour of the nearby cloud forest. How convenient!

We spent our last two days at Posada del Sol relaxing and reading as well as making a few plans for our upcoming itinerary. A shift in the winds brought a cold front up from Patagonia, dropping the temperature to little more than a few degrees above freezing. We didn't feel much like venturing out to any of the other sites  in those conditions (we really only missed seeing some waterfalls and the cloud forest)! A nerve-wracking shared-taxi ride brought us back to Santa Cruz (seriously, most of the drivers here are crazy) where we spent the night before our flight back to Sucre.

Waiting for the airport shuttle on a nearly deserted street before daylight was a little unnerving. At one point, Chris saw a man approaching with what appeared to be a crowbar in his hand. It turned out to be an umbrella. Every taxi that passed us seemed to think we were complete morons who didn't know how to hail a taxi because the drivers flashed their lights and honked just to make sure we didn't miss them. Several slowed down and one even stopped to ask us if we wanted a taxi even though we'd shaken our heads "no" after his first honk. Extreme taxi driver persistence of this sort (i.e. borderline harassment) is ubiquitous in South America from what we've seen so far. Luckily the airport shuttle rescued us a few minutes later and we were on our way back to Sucre.

Or so we thought...

Returning via Cochabamba again we ended up stranded there when our plane couldn't depart due to fog in Sucre. The delay ended up being about 5 hours but we managed to sneak in a skype with Jill, Modest, Lauren, and Miles as well as venturing into town to grab some lunch. And now we can say we've been to Cochabamba, more or less.

Arriving much later than expected in Sucre, we decided to spend the night rather than catching a bus straight to Potosi as we'd originally planned. Turned out to be a good decision because the drive to Potosi was really scenic and we would've missed it all had we left after sunset. Serendipity I suppose!

Our time in Potosi will be featured in the next blog.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. WOW. Adventure of a lifetime, or what!?! Amazing.
    I love reading about your exciting trip, keep it up. And tell Chris to take some photos, geeze.

    I hope someone reads this and offers you guys mad cheddar to publish a book.