We came through the city of El Alto (the fastest growing city in South America) up on the flat altiplano and then suddenly below us a huge valley opened out and there was La Paz - WOW. Little brick houses as far as the eye can see and all clinging to the slopes up to the very rim of the valley and sky scrapers down in the centre. The snowy, triple-peaked Illamani provides a dramatic backdrop.
This is a bustling city of one and a half million people (Bolivia only has a population of 8.1 million). They control the problem of traffic congestion by only allowing certain vehicle licence numbers into the city on specific days. Our minibus was caught out one day but a quick bribe to the local policeman and we continue on our way.
The streets of La Paz have stalls selling everything imaginable. There’s no need to ever go inside a shop. One place that was particularly interesting was the witches market. Here you can buy charms, herbs and all the ingredients you would need for an offering to the gods as prescribed by the priest. Some of the more interesting items include dried llama foetuses, toucan beaks and birds’ feet. The offerings are burned along with incense, bits of wool, grease and coca leaves in white magic ceremonies to rid you of troublesome evil spirits. Not wanting to upset any spirits Jackie bought a talisman that covers/protects her for everything. (Unfortunately we packed it in a parcel for Scotland so, if something bad happens to us, you know why.)
La Paz is the only city in the world where the rich people live in the lower areas and the poor live up high. It’s warmer farther down the valley whereas up high the air is thinner and colder.
Whilst exploring the city we saw a military parade in Plaza Murillo - this is the main square in the city with the President's Palace, the National Congress and the city's Cathedral. It looked like a naval pass out parade. Bolivia has been a landlocked country since it lost its coastline to Chile in the War of the Pacific (1836-39). However, it still has a navy, with most sailors are based on Lake Titicaca. At the square we also saw a building riddled with bullet holes. This was a result of clashes between the police and the army a couple of months earlier. The government tried to introduce a tax and there were protests. The army was protecting the President's Palace and the National Congress whilst the police were on the side of the people. Unfortunately more than 30 people died in the clashes (the tax was revoked).
From La Paz we took a day trip to Tiahuanaco. This is the site of ruins of an ancient culture that came before the Incas and was one of the world's greatest and longest running empires. Most people have heard of the Incas but they only lasted about 80 years. The Tiahuanacans had a huge empire that lasted about 2500 years from about 1500 BC to 1000 AD (depending on whose dates you believe). Their civilisation faded suddenly and mysteriously and broke into several lesser cultures. These were subsequently assimilated by the Incas a few hundred years later. It is clear to us, from the buildings and relics we have seen, that the Incas were strongly influenced by the Tiahuanacans. One of their greatest achievements was the development of raised fields for growing their crops. The raised fields were separated by canals that provided irrigation during times of drought, protected them from flooding, warmed them (as the water retains the sun’s heat better than the land), and provided fertilizer in the form of algae, fish and duck droppings. The area of Pampa Koani, that is now barely able to support a population of 7000, was once able to provide food for 125,000 with huge surpluses which were exported. These ancient, long-forgotten farming techniques are being examined with an eye to possible re-introduction to Bolivia today.
Unfortunately, what was once a massive and impressive city, is now just a small and poorly restored ruin. The Spanish destroyed the seven level pyramid in the search for gold and used the stones for their churches. The British crushed the stones to make gravel for the railways. Still, it is an interesting site and they’ve made a new and very sympathetic museum on the site to show some of the biggest and best bits.
In La Paz we visited the Tiahuanaco museum where some of the best relics are kept. But, like most Bolivian museums, there could be more information and better displays. As always, it’s lack of money.
Mountain Bike Ride to Coroico
What a ride! There is a road that runs from La Paz to the town of Coroico that has been declared “The Most Dangerous Road in the World”. It twists and winds down through the mountains from an altitude of 4750m to 1150m. Most of the way it is a dirt road and is often only one lane wide. Every couple of weeks another truck or bus plunges over the edge and drops up to 600 metres killing everyone on board. We went down this road the safest way possible - on bicycles (only one cyclist has been killed although many have been banged up).
At the top the guides sprinkled a little Ceibo (that 96% alcohol stuff) on the ground as an offering to Pachamama (the Earth goddess). As no one in our group died, we can only assume the offering worked. The first bit of the 64km ride is paved and very cold because of the altitude. We screamed along at speeds up to 70 kph (45mph) and only had to worry about the holes in the road where they were repairing it (well, they’ve dug out the bad asphalt, we didn’t see anyone filling in the holes). We were passing the trucks on the way (they had the sense not to travel at those speeds on such twisty roads). There were only three little uphill bits but they almost killed us trying to peddle at this altitude.
After lunch it was time to hit the dirt. We had to hold the breaks almost all the way. We bounced and bumped and banged our way for several hours but what a thrill. We certainly had many opportunities to stop and admire the stunning scenery. When a truck or bus came along, we held to the outside next to the drop off. This is because the vehicles all cling as close as possible to the inside and don’t give a damn it they squash a cyclist against the wall. We ended up with sore hands, wrists and bums and were totally filthy but loved every minute of it. 64km in distance and 3600m in altitude in about 3 hours of actual riding time, incredible. The cold beer at the bottom was greatly appreciated.
On the shores of Lake Titicaca, Copacabana is a quiet little town devoted to catholic pilgrims and gringo tourists. It has the only public beach in Bolivia but, unfortunately, it can’t be compared with Brazil’s beach of the same name. There is a VERY big Cathedral in Copacabana as pilgrims have been flocking here since 1610. A statue of the Virgin Mary, carved from a dark wood (the Black Virgin), was installed and suddenly miracles started to happen. People here buy miniatures of what they wish for (money, cars, houses, diplomas) and, after climbing to the top of Calvario and having them blessed, within one year they will have the real thing. Also, every Sunday at 10:30 and 2:30 there's a blessing of cars. The owners decorate them in flowers and the priest splashes them with holy water and says prayers (he also checks under the hood, perhaps he doubles as a mechanic). Then the owners spray it with champagne or beer and have a drink to the happy occasion. We can only assume that Bolivian vehicles have souls too. Read the bit about Bolivian roads, below, and you’ll see that this practise makes perfect sense.
In addition to the ability to, in restaurants, watch pirated DVDs of movies that have just opened in the theaters (we saw Matrix Reloaded days after seeing it in the theater in La Paz), Copacabana offers absolutely stunning sunsets over the beautiful Lake Titicaca. The lake trout is pretty good too.
The main tourist attraction is the Isla del Sol & Isla de la Luna (Islands of the Sun and Moon). Now, for all you people who believe the Garden of Eden myth, we’re about to set you straight, for it was actually from Lake Titicaca that Viracocha, the sun/creator god sprang. He caused the first Incas, Manco Kapac and his sister/wife Mama Ocllo, to be born from the rock called Titicaca (from which the lake gets its name) on the north end of Isla del Sol. Titicaca means Puma Rock and, with a bit of imagination, you can see the face of a puma in the rock. They also claim that the outline of the lake itself resembles a puma chasing a rabbit (again, a little imagination helps). The islands are pretty little places with a variety of Inca ruins and we spent a pleasant day visiting them and riding the boat on the lovely lake.
From here we took a short bus trip across the border and on to the Peruvian town of Puno. We really liked Bolivia, perhaps we should have spent more time here (but then this Episode would have been EVEN LONGER).
Observations of Bolivia
In La Paz we visited the interesting Coca Museum. This presented an historic and scientific explanation of the production and effects of this controversial plant, which has been chewed for thousands of years by the indigenous Bolivians. They use it as a medicine, to stave off hunger, to help with the altitude, as an offering to their gods and as gifts in many important forms of social bonding. When the Europeans arrived it was originally prohibited by the Catholic church (they called it the “Devil’s Weed”) but the Spanish soon realised that their workforce would be more productive if it was used. Of course they "re-introduced" it and put a tax on it.
We gave them a try when we were in Potosí, just to help us out in the mine of course. You take out the stalk and chew the leaves along with leija. This is a paste molded from plant ashes which activates the saliva to produce the desired effect from the coca. Basically it numbs the senses and staves off hunger pangs and exhaustion. It is only by chewing coca that the miners can work at all. Peter was feeling ill (the llama meat) and it certainly helped him down in the mine. Jackie only tried a little but did get a numb mouth.
In 1862 German chemists isolated an alkaloid or nitrogen-based compound which they labeled "cocaine". By around 1880 it was being used as a cure for opium addiction and alcoholism. Today, there is a huge demand for this drug from the millions of North Americans and Europeans who snort, smoke or inject it. Apparently supply on this scale is not a problem. Making cocaine hydrochloride is as easy as baking bread. The leaves go into a plastic pit with a solution of water and a little sulfuric acid where they are left to soak for a few days. Then follows a succession of mixing and stirring with more chemicals until the liquid turns milky-white and then curdles, leaving tiny, ivory coloured granules. This cocaine base is then transported to Columbia, where it is refined into white powder, before being shipped abroad. The costs to produce a kilo of the stuff is around $5,000 but the returns can be as much as $50,000.
Needless to say, in recent years, coca and cocaine has been one of Bolivia's main sources of income and employment. It was Bolivia's most important export product. In 1997 the US threatened a ban on aid to the country, forcing Bolivia to draw up a plan which promised zero coca by 2002. Once the world's third biggest producer of coca, Bolivia has destroyed 90% of the plant . However, that has meant that now almost one in four Bolivians are out of work. The country is struggling with its worst ever economic crisis, as the eradication plan costs Bolivia $600 million a year. The irony is, despite the crackdown of the last five years, cocaine consumption in North America and Europe has remained at the same level and Columbia has simply filled the gap in the market. Bolivia is being made to pay for the war on drugs.
Cocaine also has its legal uses. Medicines for hay fever and sinusitis used to contain cocaine but now have synthetic replacements. However, it is still used in hospitals worldwide as a local anaesthetic. In the late 19th century Coca-Cola was invented which had cocaine in it, needless to say it was a huge hit. In 1914 that element was removed but even today the coca leaf is still used as flavouring in the production of Coca-Cola.
Food and Drink
Bolivian wine: Tried some ... we were soon missing Argentine wine.
Beer: At this altitude beer foams like crazy. It’s impossible to pour a beer without a lot of head (Head! Who said “head”? I’ll have some of that!)
Singani: Made from grape skins. Tried it once.
Api: A lovely hot maize drink with cinnamon, cloves, sugar and lemon. Great on those cold altiplano mornings (or nights).
Restaurant bills: We think we’ve figured out why Bolivia is so poor. In Argentina we got into the habit of checking restaurant bills carefully because half of the time they added something extra or overcharged an item. In Bolivia the only errors have been in our favour, sometimes for a large amount (we always correct them).
Only about 4% of the country's roads are paved and in many of those cases the term is used loosely. Also, a mere 20% of roads can be used all year round. The rest are often impassable in the rainy season due to landslides or being washed away. Nearly all Bolivian road surfaces, even the paved sections are bad and after flooding they are even worse.
Bolivian road warning signs take the shape of crosses, which line the side of roads to indicate where vehicles have gone over the edge. Most of the crosses appear on particularly dangerous bends and many drivers being devout Catholics, will cross themselves on seeing one. This, of course, means that many of the sharpest bends on the road are negotiated with one hand on the steering wheel.
Buses are often overcrowded with people standing in the aisles. We have to assume this is illegal, however, as we noticed they were told to duck when passing a police post. Luggage usually goes on the roof and, sometimes, the bus has to stop to recover stuff that falls off. Men will often have to get off the bus to push start it or if it gets stuck, if the combined weight of the women is deemed to be too much, they too have to get off to lighten the load (Peter only had to push once). Sometimes livestock goes on the roof. A handy hint from our guidebook is to ensure your window can be closed. This is in case a little animal needs to relieve itself whilst up there or gets car sick (fortunately we didn't encounter this).
The High Altiplano
At these altitudes the sun’s rays have much less atmosphere to filter them so it’s very hot in the sun and it’s easy to burn your skin. But, when you step into the shade, you’re suddenly freezing because the air is so thin that it doesn’t hold much heat. At night, the thin air means you are treated to the clearest and brightest star filled sky you can imagine. It also means that the day’s heat is released easily so it gets bitterly cold. (The hotels, well, the cheap ones we stay in, don’t have heat, just lots of blankets on the beds. Morning showers with tepid water in freezing bathrooms is not the most enjoyable part of Bolivia.) The sun and dry air also mean dry skin, frizzy hair, chapped lips, stuffy noses and cold sores. The other amazing thing is the lack of oxygen. The air pressure is about 60% of that at sea level. Even after a month of acclimatization we still huffed and puffed after walking up a couple of flights of stairs. (The hotels, well, the cheap ones we stay in, don’t have lifts.)
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