Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Welcome to the land of bowler hats - part 03


In the capital of Bolivia (the highest capital in the world), we stayed at "Alojamiento El Solario", cheap place with good location, free internet and an uninviting room.
In short, La Paz looks pretty run down, with dirty streets, ugly architecture, crazy chaotic traffic, but somehow it was more fun to walk around here than in the super clean and white Sucre.
It was fascinating to see so many traditionally dressed women (cholas) in a big city. The big skirts that make them look wide, their knitted sweaters, and bowler hats (chapeau melon). Which you don't attach with pins but balance on your head. In La Paz these hats are taller, and the cholas look a lot rounder, like Russian dolls.

The Capital is a big city with character and many things to visit.
The two visits that stand out: Museo de Instrumentos - has an incredible collection of instruments from all over Bolivia and the world. Worth the visit.
Visit to the "Museo de la Coca" was a lot more informative, we have spent a couple of hours just reading about coca, its history, use and abuse.
Interesting facts:
- South American indigenous groups used coca leaves for over 4500 years.
- Chewing of coca leaves is called - "acullico".
- Effects of chewing coca leaves: a) provides increased tolerance for work, b) stimulates the respiratory centers. It does not increase the capacity of the lungs but it helps absorb more oxygen (by dialating the bronchioles) no matter what the lung capacity is. c) lowers the risk of thrombosis by inhibiting the build-up of platelets. d) helps regulate the level of insulin in blood.
In the beginning the Spanish colonialists forbade the chewing of coca leaves and called it devil's product. But when they realized that it helped people work more, increasing production, they allowed it and even payed miners in Potosi in coca leaves. At some point, the coca leaves were as valuable as gold.

As in every other city, we went to a view point. La Paz spreads around the surrounding hills and it seems to be expanding rapidly. The fascinating thing is that the houses look unfinished and blend (color-wise) into the grayness of the hills. If they would paint them all in very bright colors, it would look like Lego land.

The traffic in La Paz is crazy, but it has the most efficient public transportation. You never wait more than a minute to catch a micro (little mini-van) to any destination you want. They are easy to spot when the driver's assistant, hanging at the window or in the doorway, yells the destinations.

At our hostal Miko met a Japanese guy who did not have such a good experience in La Paz. He was in a taxi when two men pretending to be tourist police stopped the car and demanded to see his papers. The taxi driver must have been working with them. They searched his bag and stole his passport and money. Classic example of one of the main scams in Bolivia - fake tourist police.

After two days in La Paz, Miko biked down the Death Road, while Hana took the bus to meet him in Coroico, 3 hours away.

DEATH ROAD (by Miko)

Yeah! I am so Bad-ass, I did the Death Road! YEAH!
Well, there is a new road now, meaning the famous most dangerous road in the world (over 150 death per year) is not so dangerous anymore. There is no more traffic or very little. The road is now a big tourist attraction where people (like me) ride down for 60 kms all the way to Coroico.
It was still a great way to appreciate the dramatic landscape around. It reminded me of the Milford Sound in New Zealand. And riding it you can easily see how dangerous the road was when it was used. I can't imagine 2 trucks crossing without one falling off the cliff, in some places a 300 meters straight drop.
People still die on this road every year though. Mostly they are intrepid young tourists who miss a curve going down way too fast, like the british kid who fell off a week earlier.
The only real effort we had to make was to climb over a huge land slide covering the road. Seeing it I remembered noticing all those houses built on a soft ground all over the hill sides in La Paz. After I asked our guide about it, he told me that landslides happen all the time in the Capital. There must be an entire neighborhood sliding down at once sometimes.
Anyway, even if the ride wasn't as crazy as i thought it would be, I had a good time and arrived in Coroico in one piece, even if I almost lost it at one point.

During the entire day I couldn't remember if I had given my other camera to Hana...


On Saturday May 31st Miko went on his Death Road bike ride and I went to Coroico, cute little town 3 hours away from La Paz. It was the first time on this trip that we separated.
I picked a place to stay, called "Sol y Luna", from the guide book. It was high up in the hills above the village. It took me over half an hour to get there, all sweaty, carrying bags. I knew that even if I didn't like the room that I would take it. Could not imagine walking back down with the backpack. Luckily, the place was beautiful, surrounded by bamboo and palm trees, overlooking the forest and the mountain across.
Few hours later, I went back down to the village to meet Miko. The first thing he asked me: "Do you have my G-9 camera?". I did not have it so he figured that he must have left it under the mattress in the room in La Paz. All freaked out, he decided to get on the next mini-van back to La Paz, and he left me his big backpack and put me in the taxi. I did not get far because the driver now demanded more money. I got so angry, cursing, yelling at him in Bosnian, pocking him with a finger. He left me back in the village, and I had to walk all the way up to Sol y Luna, carrying 20-kg on my back. I guess the anger boiling inside gave me strength to hike up those hills for the second time.
Miko returned from La Paz the next morning, without camera. Then he looked in my bag (just in case) and in his big backpack that he left with me and guess what - it was there! He went to La Paz for nothing. N'importe quoi Mickael!!!

Ouai n'importe quoi! Well at least I got to go to ze movies ("The Changeling" by Clint Eastwood) and it was interesting to be separated for a day after spending 24 hours, 7 days a week together for the past 9 months. We did not mind it ;)

After this little drama, we enjoyed being in Coroico. It was nice to see green again after a month of dry landscape and two weeks of freezing cold. The next day we were leaving for Rurrenabaque in the Bolivian Amazons. Fuck the cold! Viva la jungle!

* One interesting thing about Coroico is that there is a high number of black people there. They are descendants of the African slaves brought to Bolivia by Spanish to work in the Potosi mines. They came probably about 300-400 years ago. It was surprising to see older black ladies dressed in the traditional chola outfits with their curly hair forced into short, little braids.


Because of the rain, the planes were not flying to Rurre (Rurrenabaque) so we had to take an unwanted bus for 15 hours in order to get there.
To our surprise, the road we used was actually a continuation of the Death Road. Unpaved, narrow, windy, and with NO safety ramps. We were centimeters away from falling hundreds of meters down into the river. It was definitely more dangerous on the bus than on a mountain bike. At least the scenery was beautiful, waterfalls everywhere. It reminded us of the North Laos: high and green mountains with little, dusty villages along the road, on the edge of disappearing down the cliff.

We arrived in Rurre at 5am. Somehow we managed to sleep through 15 hours of this bumpy, music blasting, crowded ride with people standing in the aisles. The round belly of a chola was rubbing against Miko's shoulder while her armpit was hovering above his face. Hmmmm, sexy!

It felt like we were back in Asia. Rurre was a cute, lush, green, warm, little town. Almost everyone is riding a motorcycle, even old ladies, and not many cholas.
On our walk through the town, we encountered two funny parrots, sitting on a roof of a house, chatting and mimicking our laughter.
In Rurre we booked a tour to visit the pampas (wetlands) and the jungle for 5 days total. We picked the wrong company for this tour: Indigena Tours - recommended by Lonely Planet, overpriced, overcrowded dormitory, insufficient food and bad transportation.
Despite all that, we had a great time mainly because our guide Jaime was great. He has been working as a guide for 12 years and loves what he is doing. During our three day pampas tour, we did:
- alligator spotting at night (looking for the two yellow eyes in the dark, but enjoying the full moon and the sounds at night was the best)
- searching for anacondas in the marshes (our guide caught one 2m long, we did not enjoy seeing it passed around by tourists for pictures)
- swimming with pink river dolphins ("supposedly" there are no alligators in the area where they are...)
- pirana fishing (Miko caught a red, assassin pirana while Hana caught many branches and the smallest fish ever, not even a pirana)
We loved being in the boat, going up and down the river Beni and spotting animals all around: alligators, pink dolphins, turtles, anacondas, monkeys (yellow and capuchin), capybaras (the largest rat in the world), and so many birds of all shapes, colors and size. All you had to do is sit and look.

On this tour we were in a group of 8 people: Hana, one man (Miko) and 6 half-naked boys :)))

We followed the pampas by a two day, really mellow, jungle tour. The camp looked like a little paradise in the jungle with hammocks hanging all around. Even though we signed up with the Indigena Tours, they sent us with a different company - Mashequipa. The service was much better (plenty of delicious food) and again we had an awesome guide - Sandro.
Because of the density of the jungle, this visit was more about the nature, the medical benefits of plants and trees, or their poisonous effect. It was difficult to spot any animals but on our night walk we saw: insects, many kinds of spiders (Miko's favorite); large red and blue macaw parrots (they live in couples and ones one partner dies, the other parrot dies also); walking trees, big butterflies, and another little kitty "Problem" :) So cute.

Already on our pampas tour everyone was much younger than us, but on the jungle tour, we really felt like mom and dad. The two girls with us were barely 18 years old and looked more like 15! While traveling in Asia we have encountered more people same age as us, but here in South America, almost everyone we met was in their early 20s. We felt old.


We left Rurre the day after our return from the jungle. We took the plane back to La Paz. The bus was enough one way :)
But the morning of the trip, Miko woke up feeling sick. His delicious and expensive meal from the night before (fish w/ roquefort sauce) had poisoned him. On the plane he felt like he was going to faint, puke and shit in his pants all at the same time. Luckily, none of it happened.
Since Miko was sick that day, Hana took care of organizing transportation from Rurre to Copacabana via La Paz. One plane ride, two micros, one 3h mini-van ride later, we arrived in Copacabana, a small town by the Lake Titicaca.

In touristy but charming Copacabana: we visited a beautiful, white church with the red-yellow painted ceiling; then Miko took a photo of a little boy on the street and made him cry; we hiked to the two view points (liked the "Horca del Inka" hill the best) and watched the sunset over the Titicaca lake while Miko was farting (pobre stomach, pobre Hana).
During our stay in Copacabana, we hung out with a fun, Croatian couple: Natasa & Kristijan. They have also been on the road for 9 months, are fierce trekkers and are the masters of bargaining.


With Natasa and Kristijan, we took a 2h boat to the Isla del Sol (The Island of the Sun where, according to the Inka beliefs, the sun itself was born).

Lake Titicaca and its islands reminded us of the Dalmatian coast in Croatia. Even the Croatian couple was saying that. The water is ultramarine blue (very blue) and as wide as a sea. The islands are dry, covered with terraces and little patches of trees around tiny villages.
The first part of the day we've spent visiting the Northern part of the island and the Inka ruins. Then we walked 8km along the ridge all the way to the Southern part. We were the only ones on the trail, luckily, because Hana had stomach issues and left her mark along the way :) We spent the night at Palla Khasa, a guesthouse near the Yumani village, at 4200 meters. Away from the other tourists, surrounded by magnificent views, donkeys, sheep and silence.

The following day was our last day in Bolivia. Next, we were going to Arequipa, Peru to meet up with Mr. Kevin Bell (again!). Isla del Sol was a very nice place to end our trip in Bolivia.
Hana had only about 10 days left in Peru before her flight back to San Francisco. We could not stop thinking about it. We were a little anxious...


Bolivia was a great country to visit, both visually and culturally.
Tupiza was a great intro to the country, then the Salar de Uyuni amazed us with its beauty. In Potosi we witnessed the hardship of the miner's life. Pretty Sucre was a little disappointing, but the ugly La Paz was a nice surprise. The not so dangerous Death Road and Coroico were a return to green and friendlier temperatures. The Amazonas ,bla, bla, bla, genial :)
and Isla del Sol was a sweet, frozen dessert.

Bolivia is a country with the highest number of indigenous people in South America.
We loved the way women dress in the chola outfits. The Spanish imposed on them this specific dress in the 18th century and it is interesting how the tradition remained after. I wonder how many more generations are going to dress like cholas because the younger women, specially in the cities, are already dressing more Western like.
I love how cholas carry their babies on the back, wrapped in an aguayo (large, colorful cloth), tied around their shoulders. Babies have round, chubby, red cheeks, probably burned from the sun. They are wrapped like a bundle and handled like dolls. But they don't seem to mind it, they rarely cry. The women travel, shop, cook, clean, and carry them around until they are 3 years of age.

The political situation was interesting as well. There are political graffiti and slogans everywhere, especially along the roads. The country seems to be divided between Evo Morales supporters (mostly indigenous people) and the opponents (wealthy, Spanish descendants).

Many travelers we have met did some volunteering work somewhere along the way and I think we could have done it as well. It would have been an interesting and different experience, besides "just" traveling.

Even if we liked Bolivia, we are not going to miss the cold. By the end, we could not stand it. Appreciate your heaters!