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Tegan & Ingrid's world adventure

“Holy Crap! Where’s the oxygen gone?!?!”

BOLIVIA | Monday, 2 April 2012 | Views [1304]

Our view of Lake Titicaca from Las Olas Guesthouse

Our view of Lake Titicaca from Las Olas Guesthouse

It is so hard to describe Bolivia. It’s the land that time forgot yet held so close to its heart. It’s a place of incredible beauty yet a lot of its people have a hard way of life. It’s a country that everyone should experience and that no one should take for granted.

We arrived in Bolivia into the town of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Being situated at an altitude of around 3800masl (meters above sea level), it’s the highest navigable lake in the world. This was also the first time the altitude started to affect us in a notable way. A simple 20m walk up a road now felt like a half marathon due to the lack of oxygen in the air. Meanwhile headaches, dizzy spells and shortness of breath became a common occurrence. However we were going to have to get used to it as 80% of our time in Bolivia was going to be spent up at around 4000masl. A hostel was quite easy to find as there were guys ready and waiting to snatch up any potential clients for their accommodations as the bus arrived in Copacabana. The hostel was quite OK but it had a wicked breakfast (too big to finish).
We spent our first day in Bolivia slowly (very slowly) wandering the streets of Copacabana. The town is quaint, not very large and full of countless stores selling Alpaca and Llama knitwear, which we pretty much needed straight away as it was quite cold being at 4000masl. So before long both Ingrid and I were rocking some funky Alpaca jumpers and ready to see more of the town. The main street of Copacabana starts at the port on Lake Titicaca and gradually climbs the hill towards the centre of town. It’s lined with all kinds of restaurants, clothing stores and hippies. Yep, Copacabana is pretty much hippy central. The streets are filled with dozens of dreadlocked and patchwork clad travellers trying to earn a buck through either street performing or selling their handmade jewellery.

The next day we checked into a new guesthouse, one that we had been advised on staying at while in Peru. Las Olas Guesthouse is, in a word, incredible. It has 7 self-contained, uniquely designed and built cottage-like cabins situated high on a hill overlooking Copacabana and Lake Titicaca. Our Cabin was so amazing. It was cylindrical, and split over two storeys, the first being the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom with a giant circular bed in the middle and fireplace to the side, the second storey containing another day bed and two indoor hammocks overlooking the lake. That night I cooked up a nice dinner and we enjoyed a bottle of wine overlooking the twinkling lights on the lake. However the lovely night was soured by the fact the Ingrid fell quite ill overnight and was pretty much bedridden the entire next day. We had planned to take a boat ride out to Isla del Sol (Sun Island) on Lake Titicaca the next day as we had heard about the wonderful Inca ruins and treks over the island, however Ingrid was in no state to get on a boat. As it turned out, her sickness could almost have been taken as a blessing in disguise as it rained most of the day – not great weather for trekking.

Luckily, it seemed to be a 24hr bug and Ingrid was feeling better the following morning, which was good as we had planned to travel to La Paz. We threw on our bags and headed down to the bus terminal, where I think it may have been a total of 30 seconds we were there before we were offered the cheapest bus fare I’ve ever heard of. Sixteen Bolivianos (around $2.20) per person to travel around 4 hours to La Paz! So we boarded a minibus with all the locals and set off. The road out of Copacabana is quite breathtaking; it climbs all the way up through the nearby mountains before descending once again into another lake side town. Here we were asked to get out of the Bus and board a little tug boat to cross the Lake, and I thought to myself, ‘OK. But what about the bus?’ My thought was quickly answered when all the Buses and Trucks started rolling onto little barges which carried them across the water. Why build a bridge when you can keep transporting people across the lake in the same way that has been done for hundreds of years hey?

Arriving into La Paz was pretty crazy. We didn’t know it at the time but La Paz is situated in one of the most spectacular settings for a metropolis in the world. The city resides within a mountainous bowl surrounded by stunning snow-capped peaks. At the top of the bowl, in the surrounding area of La Paz is the city of El Alto. Driving through El Alto we were thinking we had arrived in La Paz, and that it wasn’t very impressive at all. Then all of a sudden the buildings stopped, and the view opened up to a jaw dropping view of La Paz. As the road spiralled down around the bowl into La Paz Centro we could see that no matter where you were in this city, you could see the other side of the bowl, resulting in amazing views absolutely everywhere.
Just as a side note: while anywhere else in the world the higher positions on the mountainside, and therefore better views would be considered more lucrative real estate, it is actually the opposite in La Paz. Here, everyone wants to live lower down as the elevation is less and everyday life is easier.

I can definitely say that we loved La Paz. By the time we arrived, our acclimatisation to the altitude was coming along well, and walking through the bustling, market filled streets on our way to our hostel was a great welcome. The good vibe was slightly dampened once reaching our hostel when we were told (for the THIRD time in South America) that they had overbooked and our room was not available. However, unlike the previous two occurrences, this one worked in our favour. The receptionist walked us to a much better nearby hotel and told us that we could stay there for the same price! Good vibes flowing again.

Over the next two days we explored the streets of this thriving market city. In the old town section of the city, most of the streets are transformed into endless fruit, vegetable, clothing, toys, hardware, cosmetic and even witching stalls. Yes, in fact, La Paz has a renowned street where Bolivians and people of all walks of life come to fill their bags with all matter of dark art and traditional ceremony materials. In this ‘Witches Market’ you will be able to find and purchase such goods as exotic spices, herbs and dried insects, all kinds of aphrodisiacs, dreamweavers, worry dolls and even deceased Llama foetuses. (The Llama foetuses are used for interesting rituals called Challa or Pago which means ‘payment’. During these sacrificial ceremonies the Llama foetuses are burned as an offering to ‘Pachamama’ - meaning ‘Mother Earth’.)

One of our ‘must do’s’ for Bolivia was to cycle down the infamous Death Road, or ‘El Camino de la Muerte’, which while it was still in full use would claim the lives of up to 400 people every year. Now a days there is a newer and much safer route from the 4800masl pass of La Cumbre to the town of Yolosa at a very tropical 1000masl, and so the original Death road is now primarily used for tour groups to cycle, quad bike and (still) drive down.
Shopping around for a good tour company was tougher than expected. With hundreds of agencies haggling for your business, it’s quite difficult to decipher the good, reliable and most importantly safe companies from the rest. In the end we went with Pro Downhill Mountain Biking, which turned out to be a fantastic company to go with. They provided full safety gear, snacks, lunch and drinks, good bikes with front and rear suspension as well as full hydraulic disc brakes, and even provided breakfast (something all other companies didn’t).
Our actual riding experience will forever be remembered in my mind as one of the most incredible things we’ve done. Starting at 4800masl it took us a little over 3 hours to descend 3500m down the winding roads with 1000m drop cliffs to the sides. The views are spectacular (when you’ve got enough guts to take your eyes off the gravel road for a second), and the feeling you get from knowing you’re on DEATH ROAD is enough to get your adrenaline really pumping. While you may read that since being opened to cycling group tours the road has claimed 34 cyclists’ lives, don’t be too intimidated, the road really isn’t that dangerous. At no stage did I feel like I was in trouble (you need to remember that the road is pretty much wide enough to fit two buses on and you’re only on a bicycle), and even when Ingrid had a pretty heavy fall it never looked like she would go over the edge, she was just waving to the camera when her tyre hit a rock J.

We had one final day in La Paz before we were to set off further into Bolivia, and we thought we’d walk down to the central lookout of La Paz so that we could take the entire view of the city in. The lookout was pretty cool, it had been converted into a big children’s playground (and I mean BIG). So it had something for everyone. Oh, and the view definitely did not disappoint.

Next it was onto another overnight bus, this one to take us to Sucre in central Bolivia.

Might I just say, while we’ve found that South American people are generally quite friendly and welcoming, they really don’t have much care when it comes to disturbing people with their audio devices, hand-held game consoles and loud conversation, especially while people are sleeping on overnight buses. That is all.

 

 

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