Some love and hate in Bolivia
19.12.2013 - 03.01.2014
After piling into one of the mini-vans that transport people around La Paz – with all of our luggage to much huffing and puffing and one Hail Mary – we arrived at the bus stand to take us to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. We were confused when a few hours into the trip we arrived at a water crossing and were forced off the bus as it was loaded onto a barge which seemed to be just old, rotten looking planks of wood on some tyres. Luckily that was just for the bus and we crossed on another boat. We carried on to Copacabana and followed a girl that met us at the bus stop with a free taxi to a hostel. I´m sure we do everything you are not supposed to. Another nice private room for $5 a night each, with a lovely rooftop terrace with fantastic views of sunset over the lake.
Copacabana beach is pebbly and lined with duck pedal boats and Bolivian families having picnics and playing games. We went for a hike up Cerro Calvario which looks over Lake Titcaca and Copacabana town, which looks much bigger from up here. Halfway up the hill is a statue – Mirador Sagrado Corazon de Jesus – which is located between the twin hills San Cristobal (male) and San Barbara (female). The path follows 14 stations of the cross and leads to a very spiritual place at the top where there are ceremonial tables, crosses and boxed in shrines where people come to light candles and pray for loved ones ill and passed.
In the centre of town at the very beautiful Catedral, cars line up daily to be decorated with streamers, flowers and sprayed with champagne for the vehicle blessing known as La Benedicion de Movilidades´, asking the Virgn de Copacabana for protection. The Virgen de Copacabana is a statue encased in glass in the church only taken out for special fiestas, otherwise it is believed catastrophic floods will occur. This statue is so highly regarded that Copcabana in Rio de Janeiro was named after this Copacabana because of it. We were lucky enough to see the statue paraded through the streets when we were sitting having our morning coffee at a café. We heard distant drumming and trumpeting and eventually up the street marched hundreds of people throwing confetti and flower petals and the Bolivian navy marched through and then finally the statue was paraded by. Lucky us. We do think it´s funny Bolivia has a navy, but I suppose they want to protect whatever borders they can now. I loved Sergio´s explanation that while Bolivians party for Carnival and other celebrations, Chile takes their land and that is why they have no ocean border now.
We thought we bought a day tour to Isla del Sol and while this sounds greedy to expect for a few dollars, that is how it was explained. So we were confused when we arrived by boat on the island and found we had to walk the entire length of the island (4 hours in the scorching sun…which we were not dressed appropriately for) to meet the boat to return to Copacabana. So in fact, we would not just spend the day cruising around on the boat, docking at important sites and boarding again the lazy tourist way we have come to enjoy. All we had was the boat ticket. We had to try and follow other people who had been on our boat to find a guide, and thankfully a girl in our group spoke Spanish and English and could translate for us. We tried to miss a few sites we weren’t interested in but without a ticket you could not pass and you had to pass to get across the island. Then there were several check points you had to pay a ´toll´ at to get past… ¨for the children¨ in the end we were so hot, sweaty, sore (thongs are not hiking shoes) and burnt we were yelling ¨WE JUST WANT TO GET OFF THIS ISLAND!!! WE DON´T WANT TO USE YOUR PATH!!!¨….looking back, it was a beautiful day, a beautiful island with Inca ruins and the island was one of the most important religious sites in the Andes as the place the sun and moon were created. Crystal clear water along the shores, ancient sacrificial tables, important history, and surrounded by the endless azul ´ocean´of Lake Titicaca – but we hated it at the time. At least we can appreciate it now and appreciate it even more as we did not stay on the island because as we arrived at the far end we met people arriving with their big backpacks and saw the hill they had to climb (at this high altitude) and how unaware they were that this would be necessary.
I also like to think that being in such a spiritual place was the best place possible to hear of beautiful Grandma passing away and I was happy that if I couldn´t be home with everyone there was a place I could go and feel that I could say goodbye and have some sort of farewell. Hailey & I trekked up Cerro Calvario again with some candles and flowers and had a lovely little ceremony for Grandma and all loved ones we´ve lost. It was really nice and then we sat on the end of a rock with a beer overlooking the lake and watched other families celebrate loved ones too, throwing bungers at each other and spraying alcohol around. Then we tipped some alcohol onto the ground to officially end the ceremony – an offering to pachamama (mother earth) so that your prayers are heard – and sat there for sunset.
Now the tone of the trip changes from this spiritual, sightseeing journey to a drunken, party holiday for the festive season. Bar dancing, countless bloodbombs (the official Loki shot, red bull and grenadine dropped into a glass of red bull…you will not escape without many), bars lined with shots and then set alight, many mangina´s in the bar (again,mostly Australian boys), forgotten nights, lost articles of clothing after clubs, wasted days…but you never have to feel ashamed the next day as everyone else at this hostel was always just as drunk or more so.
We spent a week in La Paz, so that we could be at a good hostel for Christmas and they really did do a nice day. We had a proper Xmas dinner and the bar was decorated sooo nicely and the staff were amazing and made it really special and as homely as possible for everyone. At 12 on the dot my birthday celebrations began and for some reason it seems tradition amongst backpackers to buy the birthday girl THE. Most. Disgusting. Shots. Possible! I awoke with a stiff feeling face and when I looked in the mirror I was covered in UV paint. Hmmmmm. I remember singing Enrique Iglesias songs in the taxi on the way home from a local bar where the manager would not let us buy any drinks all night and instead just kept bringing over his own trays of flaming concoctions. Just another night in La Paz.
We then decided it would be a good idea to mountain bike down the road known as ´The World´s Most Dangerous Road´ a.k.a. Death Road. It was awesome! We started early in the morning as it was a couple of hours drive away, through the finally quiet streets of La Paz city and up the surrounding snowcapped mountains to a car park where we got acquainted with our bikes – mine was Evil Santa - and passed around a bottle of 96% alcohol to sip, pour on our bikes and then onto the earth to ask for Pachamama´s protection. Pachamama appears to be an alcoholic. Our guide was great and as we started on an asphalt road to get used to our bikes he stayed at the back with Renee and I and chatted to us so we concentrated less on pooping our pants as trucks and buses flew by and more on removing our white-knuckle grip on the brakes. It was a shame I couldn’t move any part of my body and more fully appreciate the beautiful scenery of the surrounding mountains, but I chose life. I was just getting used to riding and was able to release the brakes from time to time when it was time to board the bus (except the overachievers who wanted to ride the extra hour – this part was up hill so most of us chose to eat our chocolate bars and bond on the bus…we had a really good group of people) and head for Death Road. Arrrrghhhh toilet stop por favor? Talk about nerves.
You start up in the dry bushy mountain tops and as you descend it becomes more humid and tropical. It is really beautiful scenery when you can appreciate it, but as we were always at the back we never had much time to stop before starting again, as the rest of the group had already been waiting.but on Death Road, I felt no need to go any faster than I felt comfortable and the guide was constantly fixing my brakes as I don’t think I let go once. He also warned that I would suffer from ´prison butt syndrome´by the end of the day as I also didn´t lift my butt off the seat the whole time. But it was my cramping hands that were more the problem. We road through waterfalls and creeks – a time I did actually have to speed up – and dodged ´baby skull rocks´ which commonly knock people off their bikes and when we finally made it to the little village at the end were warned to look out for dogs and children as they also often knocked people off at this point. I ignored many high five requests because of my inability to remove my hands from their moulded position.
When we made it to the end we celebrated our lives with a beer and then went ziplining which was a lot of fun, in Superman position (so that braking was not my responsibility), 350m high above the bush and rivers below. We then piled into the back of a truck to take us to meet the rest of the group at an animal sanctuary but as we were running late (ahem…not our fault for being too slow) we only had time for a shower and food. Up until this point we hadn’t even thought about how we would get back to La Paz, but I had specifically screamed throughout the day ¨thank god we are on bikes not on a bus¨ as the road didn’t seem so narrow for us on bikes. WELL, how did we have to get back???? Along The Worlds Most Dangerous Road…on our bus. Luckily a small 20 seater one but it still took several beers on our bus party to calm the nerves. We stopped under one waterfall , mid-creek, and they opened the doors so we could look out and there was about 5-10cm between the edge of the bus and the edge of the road and the vertical drop. So this is when we started to hear the death stories of Death Road. At its peak there were about 300 deaths a year. There is now a new road but vehicles still use this one and it sucks when 2 vehicles meet in opposite directions, trust me. Here cars drive on the right hand side but on this road they switch so that the driver is at the edge of the road.
We heard about a truck who had to reverse to give way to another car and it´s tray was filled with 100 or so people and as it reversed its wheels slipped and it went over the edge, killing them all. We hoped we would never have to reverse along this road…stay tuned for the trip to Rurrenabaque. Especially in the wet season remains are usually never recovered as the vegetation grows over so quickly.
A sad story was of a man whose wife and children died when their taxi went over the edge. He quite hit job and became a human traffic light to stop this happening to anyone else and relied on food and money donations. At one stage there were about 10 human traffic lights like him. Anyway, we made it back safely! Hurrah! Never again would we drive along Death road. Surely once is enough right?
The next day we set off for our bus to Rurrenabaque and our Amazon pampas tour. We had been warned, for our sanity, to fly (about $70 and one hour), but for $15 who could resist a 20 hour Bolivian bus ride. We thought that the ´for our sanity´ may be due to bumpy roads or the long journey and we can handle that fine. Nope, it is because after using the ´new´ road it merges back onto Death Road. Not the one officially used for the bike tours, but the same width, the same vertical drops, the same scary sh*t where you end up laughing because you are so scared and do begin to lose your sanity. Hailey was practically sitting in the lap of the old lady next to her, Renee had her eyes closed but I was at the window seat and couldn’t help but look as the edge of the bus appeared in line with the drop over the edge. And then, when we thought it couldn’t get any worse – we had to reverse!!! It was horrible. I was on the very back seat so the back wheels of the bus were in front of me – because of this, at one point reversing I was actually OVER THE EDGE OF THE ROAD!!! We swore we would get the flight back – until several days later we thought ¨ah, we did it once let´s just bus it´. The bus trip was bumpy and dirty. Ah Bolivia. And hot, especially arriving in the humidity of Rurrenabaque even at 6am. I was excited when there were no taxis – it is a town of mostly motorbike taxis – so we each got to squeeze on one with our packs and zip around town to the tour office.
We had time for a wet wipe shower at the tour office and then into the 4wd for the pampas tour. After very bumpy 3 hour ride we arrive at the Yemani river and spotted some pink dolphins before even boarding the boat. Then we met our guide – no English even though we booked an English tour – but to be fair he didn’t speak AT ALL really so everyone got the same deal – and hopped into the boat to make our way to our camp in the pampas. Ok, so we booked this tour cheap cheap, knowing it was not ideal season for pampas as the water was high so animals may not be so easy to spot. And we were well aware that we would get what we paid for. And that is sadly not an eco-tour. When our guide - who I cared so little for i can’t even remember his name – spotted some little yellow monkeys in the bushes overhanging the river, he RAMMED our boat into those bushes to get close, pulled out a banana (just tampering with nature, ahh) and fed them, let them jump all over him, let anyone in the boat do the same etc. etc. I think this is when we started hating the pampas and our tour group. After driving around in our little motor boat, creating a lovely haze of fumes and noise pollution, to spot alligators (camens….are they the same or different?) we arrived at our camp, a collection of rickety wooden rooms connected by a boardwalk because…..our camp had a resident alligator, Pepe. When the boat pulled up onto the SHORE he was there waiting, lurking in the water. Amazon diva Nicole started here and I refused to help unload the boat of anything but my own bag because Pepe was about 3m away!
We went to another island for sunset and met another tour group who told us about a crazy camp with an alligator, one of the biggest you will see in the pampas. Yep, our camp! Then the sun set and the mosquitos came out and we were sweating and you cant go to the toilet without your butt getting bitten and you cant shower really because you need to put your clothes on so quickly that you are still wet and if you decide to wet your hair to cool your body down it will stay wet for 2 days and you will get the worlds itchiest scalp and you will go alligator searching at night in the dark with a guide who can´t tell you what to do in a dangerous situation and when you arrive back Pepe´s red eyes are staring at you and there is a bat in your room….soooo I looooooved the pampas you can tell. And there was a couple and their kid from VALPARAISO!
Other activities included piranha fishing, which ended up with us being stalked by several alligators and shitting ourselves about the smell of raw meat on the boat. I also asked if there were pink dolphins in this area as I didn’t want to nab one and of course was told no….1 minute away as we drove off there were several. We ´swam with pink dolphins´ but as soon as our noisy boat chugged along they of course bolted. We were also told there were no alligators in this area then turned the corner and there was one on the shore. Here, while waiting for the stupid kid to have enough swim time a massive storm hit and I remember seeing Hailey´s face and it really sums up the entire experience. On NYE we went anaconda tracking, so had knee high gum boots with holes in the bottom and while Australia counted down to 2014 I had cow manour smelling muck seeping into the top and bottom of my boots, then fell and had some splash into my mouth. I think at this point I had an outburst of ¨AT HOME THEY ARE POPPING CHAMPAGNE NOW!! I HATE THE PAMPAS!!!!¨. then the guide found a rattle snake and decided to stat poking it with a stick for our amusement.
We sat around the campfire for a bit that night but Hailey and I were last to arrive and so our backs were facing the water and every time I turned around Pepe´s red eyes were there, we hated our entire group, and decided this would not be NYE so we went to bed at 10:30 because if you aren’t awake for it, it never happened! We headed back to Rurrenabaque on new years day (the official one) and we ignored our groups invite to meet up for dinner that night. Yep, we were THOSE people. We had planned to meet up with a couple from one of the other groups for a NYE repeat, as they went to bed early too so we went for dinner & drinks first and then when the club we planned to go to was closed we had to follow any music we could hear as it was 11:55 and at 11:59 we burst into a cement room of a local bar (with possible brothel upstairs) and all screamed HAPPY NEW YEAR! To some confused looks. We spent the night drinking cheap, warm beer, sweating to the point our clothes were absolutely drenched, salsa dancing with a couple of 60 year old Bolivian men. Better than in the pampas.
We arrived at the bus station the next day and encountered for the first time the problem with rocking up without a ticket – no seats left. We were devastated as were well & truly mentally prepared to leave this place. Back in Chile, a French girl had told us when in Rurrenabaque if we need help, ask for Luis and everyone knows him and he can help with anything. We had completely forgotten about this. Then, as we were begging the bus people to let us sit in the aisle or anywhere, a man (or…an angel?) turned up and asked what we needed. After much back-and-forth with several bolivianos here and then to get the job done, he managed to get us 2 seats and the promise of a 3rd temporary seat to be set up in the aisle. Well, although this never appeared, we did get 2 seats so for the first 8 hours Hailey and I swapped turns lying in the dusty aisle of the bus. Luxury. But at least we had escaped! Death road this time was met at night time so although there were several falling sensations brought on by reversing in the darkness, it was also too dark to see the edge of the road so surprisingly wasn’t as bad as the journey there. 20 hours on this bus, 14 hours freezingin La Paz bus station – at one point I was told my lips were turning blue – and another 12 hour overnight bus to Sucre – no surprise we all got sick