Vern: We arrived in La Paz after a lengthy but uneventful bus ride. Andrea was stung for $135 reciprocity fee for a visa for USA citizens. She was actually lucky to get one as the visa is a sticker which is pasted into one's passport and the border post only had two stickers left on the reel. The third American on the bus was permitted into the country but instructed to present himself at a government building the next day. He shrugged off the inconvenience but if I know how third world bureaucrats handle curve balls he's in for a grilling as to how he penetrated the country's frontier and will have to present his case in Spanish.
We checked into a dingy but convenient hotel across from the bus station with an extensive restaurant and room service menu, but when we went down for breakfast the next morning we were advised that there was to be no restaurant that day because the lady who runs it hasn't turned up. Instead we found some delicious salteñas (little pies, which are very popular here) and milky coffee and spent less than $3. Result!
We then found a rickety bus headed toward Copacabana, the largest Bolivian town on the shore of Lake Titicaca (which would have been our first Bolivian port of call had the miners not been stoning buses in Puno on the Peruvian lakeshore). The bus was full to the brim with locals taking stock or purchases to and from markets and made its way along very high roads until stopping at a small town on the lake. The stop seemed popular and about 80% of the passengers disembarked and wondered off in the same direction. We assumed they were getting lunch. Then the bus started up accelerated hard and pulled forward up a ramp and down onto a surface that gave way a little. The bus was on a barge! And most usefully, the conductor now walked down the aisle of the bus and yelled at us (and the few locals who hadn't done this trip before) for still being onboard. I stood up obediently but he barked something and turned around. Andrea translated that it was too late. Great that he chose to say something at this point. We realized that those who had disembarked had boarded comfortable little speed boats and were now zooming safely across the lake. We however were trapped on a bus on a barge. The little engine started up and we pushed away from the bank. The barge is obviously designed to travel both laden and empty so the center of gravity was very high. Meaning that every time it bobbed over a wave, the bus rocked wildly and the horizon flashed into view and away again. We opened a window wide with the intention to swim out in the event that the bus went over, but established that our PADI Open Water Diver qualification would not qualify us to dive down the 457m necessary to retrieve our backpacks from Titicaca's floor. Little kids were yelling while the adults were putting on a brave face. Andrea was in the first camp and I have the nail marks in my leg to prove it.
When we reached the other side, the passengers who'd speedboated across (and were well fed and watered thanks to their lengthy waiting time) boarded and were surprised to find a whole bus full of gringos: the two of us were indistinguishable from the locals who were also still white with fear.
The bus continued on to Copacabana and we checked into a hostel and went exploring. It's very small and dusty and ready for tourists: in the same street a street vendor is selling a slice of cake for 30c, a tourist restaurant is selling a cup of coffee for $4. We had more cake than coffee. That evening we climbed a small hill, Cerro Calvario, to watch the sun set on the world's largest high altitude lake. I vaguely remember learning of Titicaca when I was very small and it sounded very foreign and very far away and until recently I wouldn't have had a clue where in the Andes to find it, but here it is: big and blue and high in the mountains between Bolivia and Peru.
The following morning, a motor-boat took us three hours over the lake to the birthplace of the sun, Isla del Sol. Here the sun gave the first Inca, Manco Kapac, and his wife-sister (not a good start for the gene pool) a golden rod and sent them off to claim land for the tribe. They went on to stick the rod into the hill above Cuzco and start empire-building there. We visited the ruins on the north end of the island and walked three hours over the ridge, with the water on both sides, to the Inca Steps on the southern side of the island and then motored back to the mainland.
We returned to La Paz, the next day and missioned around the bustling metropolis organizing transport and tours deep into the Amazon Jungle, the upcoming highlight of our Bolivian adventure. I like La Paz; it isn't pretty but it's a city making an effort: there are amazing murals all over and men in zebra costumes patrol some of the zebra crossings promoting pedestrian safety. Also, despite being the capital of the continent's poorest country, few are looking for handouts (only the really old or infirm). Instead, the city is buzzing with informal vendors selling everything from freshly baked goods, to hula hoops, to plumbing supplies. Sadly, however, the shoe-polishers wear balaclavas all day to avoid being identified and stigmatised.
Snow fell on the minibus as we left La Paz and headed to Coroico, a little town in the Yungaz region in between the mountains and the jungle, from where we are to be collected for our journey into the Amazon jungle.