Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bolivia Bound!

Rundown: Spent a couple weeks before school took off again venturing through the authentic, sometimes gritty feel of the Bolivian altiplano (highlands).

Location: Bolivia

Here's a little video to kick it off...

Alright, onto the good stuff...

La Paz! What can you say. It's a huge city built into a steep mountainous bowl. The cobblestone streets go STRAIGHT up and even eighty-year-old PaceƱos (locals) put you to shame zipping up them.

Cathedral spires rise high, but none higher than the Andes mountain peaks right out the back door. Every direction you look there are mountains hugging the city and rough adobe houses built precariously on cliff edges.

You never knew what language you'd hear, Hebrew of the abundant Israeli travelers, and Quechua and Aymara of the older Bolivians. The Spanish was clearer than in Chile though!

Nice parks and interesting faces. People out enjoying the nice summer weather...despite the occasional showers.

Transportation of any kind was crowded, with a lot of people wondering, "Gringo, what are you doing HERE?" Often we wondered the same question.

In the markets they sold fruits and veggies, as well as special items for ceremonies and rituals, like mummified llama fetuses. I didn't sign up for the ceremonies.

Women carried everything, babies, baskets, bread, on their backs in colorful blankets and always sporting bowler hats.

Food was pretty good. This was an odd breakfast of questionable (yet delicious) meat chunks in a tomato base. Often stores didn't have water...only Coke.

Yungas Road Ride

Bolivia is about half Andean mountains and high plains and half Amazon jungle. A few roads connect the mountain towns with the jungle towns. The Yungas road, affectionately known as el Camino del Muerte, is one of 'em. It drops from 15,000 feet (4,600 m) outside of La Paz, to around 3,000 feet (1,000 m), a 12,000 foot drop over 50 km of road. Naturally, it seems like a great place to bike!

You start in the morning and take a van up to the snowy pass with the bikes on top. I went with a guide, and a French guy named Ives. The first part of the road is paved, and you have to pass trucks as you plummet down through the turns.

The paved road turns to single lane dirt road that skirts the sheer cliffs. Hundreds of feet up... and hundreds of feet down... You tend to stay hard right.

The frost and cold of morning in the high pass turns warm and humid as you descend. We had to strip down.

A few waterfalls cascade onto the road and people in the back of trucks (as well as bikers) get thoroughly soaked.

Pretty incredible vistas along the ride. Had to take a few minutes here and there to stop and gawk... and let the brakes cool down.

Eventually emptied out into a tiny town where we had a little lunch and enjoyed the sunshine under the palms. Pretty amazing ride.


From La Paz, wanted to check out a tiny town called Quime, said to be a gorgeous, untouched area in a remote valley. Our hostel owner hadn't heard of the town, and we came to find that the bus terminal didn't have busses for Quime either! Found our way up to El Alto, the part of La Paz outside of the bowl to find a place rumored to have busses going our way.

Eventually found the place, but waited a couple of hours for the bus to leave. The people taking the bus weren't in a rush. The old ladies filled their mouths with coca leaves and hunkered down on the street to wait. We got a little grub in what was likely the alley next to someone's house. I think the sign just said, 'comida'.

The bus trip was long and packed with potted plants, doubling up in seats and people standing in the aisles next to you for three hours. The bathrooms left something to be desired. They were of the open hole with foot pads to stand on variety.

Drove a few hours on real tarmac, then took a hard right in a dusty little town and headed for the mountains. Drove over two passes, then down into a long, winding valley. Made it into Quime, after six hours on the road, the last of which consisted of all the men on the bus pushing a truck out of the mud so we could pass through the single track of the mountain road.

Just before dark we hiked up one of the 'streets' of Quime, dodging chickens and watching people dodge us.

Our rough directions brought us to a rock wall and a confidence inspiring door out of sheet metal.

The Hostel Colibri really was a beautiful place. The owner, who aside from being extremely social was the definition of hermit, had been in the area for thirty years and had a wealth of information.

He had built the beautiful adobe house himself and welcomed us graciously... if perhaps too enthusiastically. I'm sure he doesn't see too many visitors. Judging by the looks we got from the locals, neither did they.

Quime is raw and untouched. People drying laundry on poles propped up on brick walls and stone paved streets. Life is slow.

Hitched up to the next tiny town in the valley. The kids in the back had kittens that they were very proud of.

Along the road, a 1,200 foot waterfall plunged from a glacial lake in the green mountains above. We had a hand-drawn map from our hostel owner and were planning to find the pre-Incan path that led up there.

Along the road we ran into fifteen or so trucks all stopped. Up ahead a landslide took out the road. Seemed like no one was very shocked. Two front end loaders were pushing the rubble off of the cliff into the river below. They cleared up to a house-sized boulder that was unmovable. Out of the crowd bursts a man with a bag of pink Playdough... that turns out to be malleable explosives. They smash a crack in the boulder, pack the crack full of the compound, imbed and light a fuse, then the twenty people watching (gringo yo included) all run and hide behind the bucket of the front end loader. The explosives go off with a bang, sending rock shards arcing over our heads. They pack the bigger crack with even more compound and blow the rock to smithereens that the dozers push off the cliff, opening the road once again. We passed carefully.

Apparently the area is geologically unstable. Who knew?

Armed with snacks, water, and of course coca, we hiked into the mountains. Made one exploratory push, and had to turn back for the day.

The next day, returned and hiked three hours through scree, waist high grass, and pre-Incan pathways up to the saddle between two tall peaks where the massive waterfall originated.

You always think that you're alone. This big guy and a little old Bolivian guy were up on the mountain side as well. We asked for directions, and he told us to go 'mas alla'... farther up there. Thanks.

Eventually, we scrambled up the last rise and into the bowl that held the Lago Naranjani, a glacially fed lake. Down the sides of the bowl fell at least a dozen waterfalls. It was like Shangri-La.

Apparently that's what the Incas thought, because we found a few ruins sites around the lake. Not a bad view. In our exploring, we found a few things that our friend from Quime hadn't even heard of. Truly uncharted territory.

Flat and round grinding stones still standing.

And wild foxglove growing prolifically in the rough landscape.

How do you top something like that? We said goodbye to our new friend and decided to see if we could anyway.


From La Paz, boarded a van bound for the town of Tiwanaku, named after the pre-Incan culture that build a temple site nearby.

We tried to make friends with whomever we could.

Town was dusty and sleepy, like something out of an old western. People moved slow and didn't say much...

Women of the countryside.

The archeological site of Tiwanaku is not grandiose, but interesting. The Puerta del Sol below was covered with gold when the Spanish found it. They cracked the thing open just to make sure it wasn't filled with it as well. Nice going, conquistadores.

The site is out on the plains and has wide sweeping views. Beautiful place.

Idols still stand representing gods or rulers from long ago.

These ingenious little divots were cut into the stone, then hot metal was poured into them and cooled to hold the stones together. Amazing!

In a below ground site faces stare out from the walls.

Some still well preserved.

Some with dorky smiles...

Did have the opportunity to see a ceremonial dance troupe there taking some pictures. Pretty great authentic outfits.

Chile is a gorgeous country, but it was great to be back exploring ruins. My favorite!

Copacabana and Lake Titicaca:

Took a bus from La Paz to Copacabana, a town on the shores of Lake Titicaca, argued as 'the highest navigable lake', but undoubtedly the lake with the coolest name for middle schoolers to learn.

Copacabana sits on a peninsula in the lake and draws a pretty good traveler crowd. A few hills surround town, worth a climb for the vista.

We stayed at a gorgeous little hotel, which we splurged on after our last couple of rough places. Fun to have thirty bucks a night be a splurge... The door to the room was in the ceiling of the hallway and was accessed with a ship's ladder style set of wooden stairs. Pretty sweet.

Spent some time decompressing in the hammock, reading, and staring out over the lake.

Copacabana has a great church that we spent some time checking out. It was generally quiet, so we took some liberties exploring.

Great colors in this little sleepy town.

Fell in love with a rough little sailboat in the harbor. Talked its owner into letting me take it out for the day.

Not too much wind, which was probably good. I'm not convinced the thing even had a keel. Mast and boom were all made of hewn timbers. Moved pretty slow even with a lot of sail.

Made sure to double check the boat before setting sail. Didn't want to end up like this one.

Museum of artifacts found by divers in the lake... Looked for a dive shop, but apparently that's out of the question. Plus, who knows what diving at high altitude does to your decompression time.

Spent a day on Isla del Sol, an island that housed the birthplace of the sun in Incan culture. Ringed with snowcapped peaks and cold blue water, the rocky island is still pretty traditional.

People still living traditional lifestyles, like this old guy driving donkeys down the dirt road in the shadow of the Andes.

The island has several sets of ruins and ceremonial sites with some great hikes in between.

Hiked from the northern settlement to the southern, a three hour easy hike on the rocky spine of the island, which afforded amazing views and some interesting geology.

We spent a little time exploring a small stone village with interweaving passageways and hundreds of niches.

All in all, an amazing country. Will need to go back to check out the jungles! Viva Bolivia!

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