Buenos dias from Bolivia! Our arrival in La Paz was breathtaking ... literally! As we stepped off the plane at 4,060m above sea level, the thin air was a shock to the system. Being so busy in Mendoza (?!) we had not got round to booking any accommodation for our three days in Bolivia's capital. Trudging through customs, clinging to our trolley for support, an eager tourist information official identified us as ideal customers and swiftly sorted us out a place to stay and the taxi there.
The city of La Paz is situated in a large canyon, 400m below the airport and the views of it as you approach are astounding. Our hostel was located on a steep, bustling, cobbled street known as "Gringo Alley" (due to the large number of tour agencies, hotels and souvenir shops). Doing any kind of physical activity at this altitude was exhausting and climbing the five flights of stairs to our room pushed us to our limits, though on each subsequent ascent our recovery time got less and less.
We decided the best way to acclimatise was to get out and do something ... albeit slowly of course! We first of all visited the nearby "Museo de la Coca" which explained the role of the coca leaf in traditional andean society. It also delved into the plant's manipulation and exploitation by the Developed World, such as its use in soft drinks and the cocaine industry. The displays about the West's interference in Bolivia's traditions were very thought provoking.
Then we inched out way through the "Witches' Market" full of magical herbs and potions. We were not tempted to buy any of the protective talismans or shrivelled llama feotuses, or any of the tourist tack that accompanied them! Many of the other streets we meandered along were also lined with market stalls manned by Cholas - indigenous women wearing the traditional dress of colourful, voluminous skirts and bowler hats. The hustle and bustle of daily life in La Paz was a real sight to behold.
Unlike on the rest of our trip where locals and travellers ate and drank in the same establishments, this was not the case in Bolivia as the cultural and financial divide is much greater (over half the population is native Amerindian and it is the poorest country in South America). Instead we frequented the multitude of travellers' bars and restaurants which made a refreshing change - we even had curry for the first time in three months. Fun though it is, we would not want to live this ghetto lifestyle for much longer than the two weeks we are here in Bolivia.
Like in Colonia in Uruguay, La Paz offered a multi-museum pass for next to nothing. This filled a couple of hours and we learnt all sorts of fascinating facts about Bolivia, eg. did you know that now landlocked Bolivia once had a pacific coastline .... until Chile took it .... they are still quite hung up on this! Our favourite museum unsurprisingly was the "Museo de Instrumentos Musicales". This had a huge collection of unique instruments from Bolivia and beyond, some of which we were allowed to play. Inspired, we booked ourselves a private lesson on the charango, a ukulele-like instrument that we thought we might have some chance of success with given that we had both played the guitar in our childhood. It was a great laugh, but we won't be giving up the day job yet ... oops, we already have ... oh well, you know what we mean!
The next day we went on an organised tour that took us to Bolivia's most significant archeological site, Tiwanaku, once home to an influential pre-Inca civilisation. The explanations and stories provided by our guide were interesting, however, we felt their authenticity was questionable. Perhaps now that UNESCO are funding further excavation work things will become clearer in the future.
We spent the rest of the week at Lake Titicaca. On the bus journey to Copacabana (neither literally nor figuratively the "hottest spot north of Havana" - though it is the original, the beach in Rio being named after it) we had some interesting travel companions. Squeezed in the double seat opposite were two women, two children and a dog. In this group, family values seemed to be reversed as the dog was given more biscuits than the children and halfway through the trip the old woman ended up on the floor in the aisle to create room for the others!
We left our backpacks in Copacabana and, from there, we caught an early morning boat over to Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the sun in Inca mythology. There were several Inca ruins on the island though none as impressive as those we saw in Peru a few years ago. We walked the length of the island following the path along the ridgeline and the scenery was amazing. We could see the mainland of Peru and Bolivia as well as many other islands on the lake. Isla del Sol itself was covered with lush, green, Inca terraces and beautiful bays. Halfway along the path we were ambushed by some highwaymen in the form of two small children. They took a shine to Kirstie's torch but we diverted their attention and they ultimately seemed happy with the packet of chewing gum we gave them.
We spent the night in a family-run hostel in the small village of Challapampa, where pigs, donkeys and sheep roamed the streets. The next morning we walked along the coastal path before catching the boat back to Copacabana via the Isla de la Luna. The morning after, we chilled out by the shores of the lake and caught the afternoon bus back to La Paz in preparation for an adventurous week ahead ... read more about this in our next postcard.
Hope you are well.
Zena & Kirstie
P.S. Apologies for the pictures of Machu Pichu representing Bolivia as well as Paraguay, when it is in fact in Peru! The website has no pictures of Bolivia or Paraguay available so we had to chose something for the country header picture (it won't let you use your own photos for this). As we went here a few years back, but not on this trip, we thought we'd use Machu Pichu for this purpose!