Friday, 15 November 2013

Bolivia – Copacabana, La Paz, Death Road and the Amazon Pampas

We crossed the border from Peru to Bolivia by foot on October 29th, four days before our visas officially ran out. We had to get off the bus to get our passports stamped and walk the 60 paces or so into a different time zone! 1 hour forward we went. The Peruvian side of the border was fairly smart (as far as South American standards go).

The Bolivian side was bare…apart from one lone chicken crossing the road! This is Bolivia – welcome!

Thinking we were being clever, we spent all remaining Peruvian Nuevos Soles back in Cusco on quite a few of our new favourite chocolate bars; Sublimes, not really thinking about bus tax and exit/entrance tax (S. Americans love their tax – we keep getting caught out!) Of course there were money exchanges at the border…still learning!

Our first stop was a very sweet, sleepy town called Copacabana, perched on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca.

It was lovely to return back to the sun after Cusco’s changing weather. The air was cool though as were up at 3800m. Lake Titicaca is so vast; it is the largest high altitude lake in the world, covering 8400 sq km and straddling both Peru and Bolivia. We stayed in a lovely hostel called La Cupula, set up on the hill overlooking the lake. It felt like we were looking out over the sea; the horizon was just water. I (Hannah) tried the local delicacy, which was trout. Although Bolivia is land locked, it doesn’t really feel like it here!

The next day we got a boat to Isla Del Sol (Island of the Sun), which is the birthplace of the sun in Inca mythology.

It was a 2 and a half hour ride to the north of the island and we were sat up on the top deck in the glorious sunshine but we still had to wrap up warm!

Discovering that most of the people on the deck were English couples we had a nice time chatting away about travel routes and a few home comforts!

Upon arriving on the north side of the island… yup there is it…tourist tax again! We took a stunning hour walk to some Inca ruins on the most northerly point of the island.

Walking through a few isolated communities with kids at school outside playing. We later learnt that the tourist tax that you have to pay at three checkpoints on the island (north, middle and south) actually go towards the infrastructure of the island, providing school facilities and clean water etc. So we were happy to pay it.

On the way back to the boat we bumped into Rea and Robbie who we had met right back at the start of our trip in Mancora!! Very small world! We found out that we would be in La Paz at the same time so planned to meet up properly.

We then took the boat to the south of the island and climbed and climbed the slope to reach the village of Yumani, high on the eastern ridge.
Traffic on the way!

Here, we found a basic cabin to stay in with a breathtaking view- not bad for only £2.50 each!

That evening we walked further to the west side and set up camp outside a restaurant with a few beers, watching the sun set. Bliss!

Once the sun was down the temperature dropped and we headed inside to eat with a nice Newcastle couple we had met on the boat. After dinner the show began and Kyle and I went back outside to watch and try and photograph the multiple lightening storms happening way into the distance. It was incredible; all around the island – we were surrounded by large forks!

The next morning we woke to a very moody sky and soon the rain came. For the boat back we sheltered on the bottom deck. 

Once back at Copacabana, the sun burnt through and we spent the afternoon relaxing reading in the hammocks (after copious amounts of hand washing- it’s not all roses!). We gave ourselves a special treat and booked the Jacuzzi for sun set, the water is heated through solar tubes and reaches boiling point pretty quickly because of the altitude! Gently easing ourselves into the boiling hot water…it was our first ‘bath’ since home! A million dollar vista for the price of £3! Utter luxury!

The heat did go to our heads a little bit – Kyle having multiple head rushes and his eyes going in funny directions and I just went a bit peculiar!!

After recovering(!) we went to a good restaurant in town where they were playing awesome Blues and Jazz music; a welcomed change. We had a nice chat with the owner about his passion for music. It was interesting to hear that he was one of the first to set up a restaurant in the town and now Copacabana, being a little ‘tourist ready,’ so many others have followed suit in providing ‘authentic Mexican cuisine’.

On the 1st of the month we took a 3 hour bus to La Paz. It was refreshing to travel by day as with all the night buses, they leave us feeling knackered the next day and a bit ill. Great to actually SEE the countryside we are travelling through too! The bus journey involved a ‘ferry’ across a small stretch of the lake. For this we had to get off the bus and take a small smelly and very dodgy boat whilst the bus with ALL our belonging took it’s own!

Our entrance into La Paz definitely had the ‘wow’ factor! After driving on the flat plains for quite a while and watching in amazement at the locals selling everything and anything on the side of the road with chaotic traffic weaving in and out going about daily chores, suddenly we were driving down into the valley of La Paz. The whole land is covered in red/orange brick buildings. They are built right at the top and spill all the way down the sides of the canyon to the floor below. The snowy peaked Mt Illamani at a whopping 6400m loams in the background like a god protecting the city beneath it.

After a bit of wandering looking for a hostel we saw a Quebecan gay couple who looked just as lost as us and decided to join forces, so with three different maps of La Paz and much confusion we set out yet again in search of a bed. We bumped in to ‘Frank’, the comical young chap travelling alone from Hong Kong who was on our Jungle trek to Machu Picchu nearly two weeks previous. He pointed us in a rough direction and we trudged on. Finally we found ‘Adventure Brew’ and yet again bumped into Rea and Robbie who were in the kitchen. We played pool and ping pong that night and caught up over a few beers. ‘Saya’ beer used to be brewed in the hostel’s very own microbrewery until it got so good and sought after that it had to upscale its project and move to a local village just outside La Paz. We get a free beer every night we stay at ‘Adventure Brew’, SCORE!

We took the ‘free walking tour’ one day. It was very informative to say the least, led by a nutty gay guy and a rather more serious girl; both Bolivians with very good English. We began outside the San Pedro prison which was great to see, we are both reading the book ‘Marching Powder’ by Rusty Young about the experiences of Thomas Mc Fadden, an ex-inmate who used to lead the prison tours for tourists. The tours eventually had to close down as it got into the international press and didn’t look good as most tourists were there for the cocaine, not the culture. When Hannah and I revisted to get e better look we saw the school children return to the prison and their families after school. Yup if you don't have enough money to support your family when locked up they move in with you. It is an incredible book. Check it out here if your interested in reading it > Marching Powder on Amazon 

We learnt a little more about the ladies’ iconic dress. They wear bowler hats perched on the top of their heads. One theory as to where this fashion came from is that at the turn of the century a design company wanted to sell their small hats to the men of Bolivia (because they are small!) However their heads are not as small as they thought so they decided to sell them to the women, claiming that these hats were the height of fashion in Europe! 100 years on and they are still making money from these ladies! Their clothes also come from that time when woman used to give their old clothes to their slaves. The skirts have so many layers – making a feature of their large and strong child bearing hips!

Bolivians love their potatoes!

We visited the ‘witches market’ where they sell all sorts of strange things including baby llama foetuses! You bury it under the porch when building a house for good luck. If a larger building is being built for example a mall – then a sacrifice needs to be bigger- like a live human!! LIVE because then Pacha Mama (mother earth) can claim the life for herself. Yikes! This is however seen as murder and deemed illegal. We were advised to steer clear of shifty looking Bolivians offering us ‘free alcohol’- they are in search of live meat that will go unnoticed for a while!

Likely candidates!! 

We had a bit of an insight into the politics of the country; it’s pretty shocking! Apparently they hold the Guinness Record for having the most presidents in a certain amount of time. This is because ‘the people’ either kill(!) or force them to step down if they aren’t happy!! Out of 64 presidents 16 have been assassinated, dangerous job! When one president decided to tax the rich more to provide for the poor it didn’t take long before the rich community marched to the presidential palace. They broke in and beat the president to death before dragging his body out into the plaza and strung him up to a lamppost outside the palace. He was left there for two weeks as a warning to the next president that this is what happens when you don’t look after the rich! 20 years later the country decided to commemorate him because he did a few good things when in power and built a small statue of his head next to the lamppost – very strange! 

Presidential Palace

When there were riots in 2003 outside the presidential palace one president called the Police and asked for help because he feared for his life. Unfortunately he had just passed a tax bracket onto the Military and not the Police, so of course the police did not help and let the president get attacked. He then resorted to calling in the military and had snipers line the roofs of the plaza and ordered then to shoot his people. Many died that day. The presidential square was completely revamped except for one building on the corner that is still covered in bullet holes; a reminder. 

We had lots of fun at the hostel’s Halloween party and later that night ventured out to explore La Paz’s nightlife, ending up in a locals’ nightclub! 


One Sunday afternoon Kyle persuaded me that it would be great idea to go and see some wrestling! ‘Cholitas Wrestling’ to be specific. The traditional Andean ladies in their dress, plaits and bowler hats taking on men, other cholitas and even the umpire in the ring! It was… experience. The first session/fight was novel; a spectacle for us and quite funny even. BUT after 20 minutes I had got the picture and was finding it difficult to watch! Even though it is all fake it just all got a bit too close for comfort; on one occasion there were two men holding down one cholita, opening her legs and jumping down. This is a family show! I don’t think this is just my ‘over sensitive’ Britishness coming through – it is just wrong. Towards the end Kyle had to shove a book under my nose to distract me!
Of course we enjoyed some more delicious meals; Japanese, Mexican, Morrocan and even English!

We also managed to find some time for a bit of retail therapy, getting lost around the craft markets flexing our negotiation skills.

A highlight of the trip so far was cycling Death Road – ‘The world’s most dangerous road’! It was a long, physically and emotionally tiring day. We absolutely loved it! 

Our guides were called Goose and Scooby Doo which didn’t instil a lot of confidence in the beginning but they were great (besides Scooby calling me Hannah Montana all the time). Oh well – he called Kyle Mylie Cyrus which we didn’t really understand why but I think that’s worse!

It was a beautiful and crisp sunny day when we started up at 4700m and the weather stayed on our side the whole 3600m of the way down. We cycled 68km peeling off layers of clothing; as we went down the temperature went up. We began on the lovely smooth tarmac ‘new road’ which was opened in 2007. This eased us in nicely before getting on the ‘old road’ – loose gravel and dirt; a tad more bumpy! 

We passed many crosses, marking where people had lost their lives on the road! Prior to the new road opening, on average, 26 vehicles per year disappeared over the edge. We have just read now that 15+ cyclists have died doing Death Road – glad didn’t read this before! Some areas had unbelievably steep drops from the narrow road. You had to keep control!

We cycled through waterfalls which was awesome and over streams that covered the road.

Our end point was in the jungle at the bottom. Our celebratory beer tasted so good! 
Kyle took a dip in the rough river whilst I dangled my legs in!
Even had time for a quick rock! 

Our drive back to La Paz was much longer as we had to go all the way back up the road (luckily the new road). At points this was a pretty terrifying experience making our way up through layers of thick fog, our driver could see NOTHING! We almost made it all the way back to the hostel completely unscathed but 10 minutes from arriving our driver decided to overtake a car on a corner…nearly crashing into a massive lorry carrying fuel on the other side, we’ve never been in a bus that has slid sideways before… tick. ‘You’ve just lost your tip!’ Kyle shouted. Nevertheless we survived the day!

Driving on cliff edges... WTF!
The next day we took a flight (the first one since leaving home) to Rurrenbaque in the Amazon Basin.            The flight was with the military airline TAM and it was a pretty spectacular flight; transitioning from the high altitude La Paz to the Amazon! We were still wearing our jackets zipped up to our chins when we exited the plane and almost keeled over from the heat that hit us!! 

Yup.. landed in a field! 
The taxi from the airport was different…a motorbike each!

That day we were a little bit like zombies. The sun and the humidity made us feel drugged and we kept falling asleep. We chilled by a pool and had a bite to eat in one of the local restaurants praying that our tummies would comply.

That evening we went for a walk along the river. The temperature by that stage was perfect and we spent time just people and boat watching.

Who will be the first to spot the obvious!
Driving blind.... AGAIN!!
Our Pampas tour began the next day and it started with a 3 hour car journey on what we renamed ‘Death Road 2’. It was one long stretch of bumpy dusty track. Similar to the fog but instead it was thick dust, at times you just couldn’t see the road in front.
We stopped off for lunch and met the cutest puppy ever whom we named Trev

8 in our group – 3 Swedish girls, 1 Aussie girl, Bea, Alex and us - drinks at Sunset Bar
That afternoon we took a 3 hour boat trip up the Yacuma river to our lodge. The Amazon Basin or Pampas is an extensive fluvial plain. The river we were on flows slowly forming meanders and the water is really muddy orange in colour. 

A Capybara is the largest rodent in the world! 
The boat was a lovely experience; lazy chairs, low to the water, sitting in 2’s. It was so hot and sunny that it was just as well we were moving for the breeze.
Black Cayman aligator
River Snake - nearly dead from being used as a play toy by the river dolphins! 

There were many little Turtles dotted along the Pampas!
Lots of super cute Spider Monkeys

After settling in at our lodge, we took a short boat trip to the ‘Sunset Bar’. Here, surprise surprise we watched the sun set over a few beers.

Later that night after a lovely dinner, when it was pitch black it was off in the boat again for some night time alligator spotting! This was pretty tense! We had to look out for orange glows – being their eyes. We had success and found a few. It was so surreal to see these animals in the flesh in the wild. Their eyes are really quite frightening! They don’t seem to blink, their pupils are large and black and you can see the whites surrounding them. 

Then more chilling and drinking with the local wildlife!

Bats in our rooms....
Mosquitoes everywhere! 
The next morning we went off on a 3hr walk through the marshland to search for anacondas! Although we were walking on the flat, it was still quite challenging. We were wearing long sleeves and trousers to protect us from the long grass and mozzies. It was so hot and we were slopping about in wellies through the water, mud and uneven ground. All the time searching for an anaconda! Alas the best we got was a large toad!

B's expression and state of mind stayed similar to this throughout the 3 hrs, to conquer fear... you must become fear!   

Only the guide gets a machete just in case... hmmm! 
Our efforts would be rewarded later though!

Back at the lodge we enjoyed chill time in the hammocks. At one point the whole group were snoozing, completely comatosed by the morning’s exertions. 

In the afternoon we took the boat again down the river to go piranha fishing! (Writing this, documenting our recent activities, it does seem like we have had a death wish but rest assured its all perfectly safe(ish)) 

The fishing was slightly frustrating - they kept managing to nibble the meat off the hook without getting caught! Kyle however did well and caught a few, the famous red piranha and a white one. Their teeth are incredible! 
These are small Piranhas... the further into the Amazon you go the bigger they get... like most things! 

The next day we woke at 5am to catch sunrise, was stunning as you can see! 

 Later that morning we took the boat to a more hidden lagoon like section of the river. There we were to swim with pink river dolphins! We eased ourselves in to the orange, slightly smelly, uninviting water and waited, swam and trod water observing the dolphins at a distance around us.

We all gravitated towards each other; the anticipation of one coming up to us was unbearable and we were all a bit hysterical! We spent a long time in the water and over the time the dolphins came up to us. One swam underneath me and one poked Kyle in the bottom! We got to feel their rubbery skin. It was amazing. 

Back at the lodge, having just stepped out the shower, the cook was shouting ‘anaconda!’ from the other end. We all legged it over to be greeted by a massive 2 metre long snake! Wowee! Kyle got a bit too close, sticking his camera very near – we reminded him he had a zoom. ‘Oh yeah!’ he said.


The only negative we had with this trip were the mosquitoes- they were a complete nightmare. At all hours we were plagued. When inspecting our bodies when we returned to Rurrenbaque that afternoon in the hostel’s pool, we discovered that the whole group had hundreds and hundreds of bites – Kyle’s guess is atleast 1300 between all of us. They had bitten through our clothes and on our bums when we went to the loo! The whole trip we were constantly hitting each other trying to kill the buggers. However, Kyle did not get ONE bite!!! I think this must be some kind of record – it’s incredible…incredibly unfair too… I am itching as I type. Kyle has given himself yet another nickname to add to the list – King of the Jungle … NOT ONE BITE!! 


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