Friday, October 30, 2009

Back in La Paz

Friday October 30 finds me back in La Paz, preparing for a three day weekend down in Yolosa, which is in the subtropical area northeast of La Paz (elevation: about 3,000 feet). Here is where they grow the famous coca leaves, and the best coffee in Bolivia. Guess which one I will be sampling....

To get to Yolosa I will be taking the "World's Most Dangerous Road". No kidding. Since earning this moniker, a bypass has been constructed so the road is no longer used for motor traffic, but is still used by adventure companies to take people on mountain bikes for a 9,000 foot downhill ride. In some places the road is only 9 feet wide, which will test my fear of heights! I will be leaving my computer in La Paz, so full report only when I get back.

In great contrast to my first few days in La Paz, today was sunny and warm and breezy, making a great day for the obligatory protests of one sort or another that are a daily occurrence in the city. I met with my travel agent, then did as the Pacenas do and headed for a salteneria for a mid-morning snack of saltenas de pollo (saltenas are like Mexican empanadas). It seems that everyone is on the streets, excited for this 3 day weekend which includes Halloween, but more importantly, November 1 - the Day of the Dead, a significant holiday in Latin America.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Isla del Sol

Isla del Sol (Sun Island) was a sacred place from around 500 AD, when the people of Tiwanaku built religious shrines here. One thousand years later, the Incas built their own shrines and proclaimed Sun Island the birthplace of the Sun, the Moon and the Inca dynasty.

It feels like the top of the world. Barren, bright and dry. This morning we took a boat to the far side of the island to see the remaining Inca ruins, which are not much, then hiked the 500 year old Inca trail along the spine of the island (starting above 12,000 feet, and dipping below and above over the next 3 hours). Although we started early, the sun, the altitude, and the previous day’s epic journey took their toll on me, and I practically crawled back to the hotel, where I crashed and slept for 3 hours. I nursed cup after cup of coca tea (non-narcotic) to revive me, but I was worthless for the rest of the day.

The eco-lodge where I stayed was situated on the east side of the island, facing the Peruvian side of the lake, and the highest peak in the Peruvian Andes, Illampu (over 18,000 feet). The views were stunning, especially as the sun set over the other side of Sun Island, and the peak was lit up in pinks and yellows.

Thursday the 29th takes me back to La Paz… (where I am finally able to post).

Hiking from Copacabana to Sun Island

5 hours of hiking at 12,000 feet. You do the math. Tired.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In Copacabana

No, I am not in Brazil! It turns out that the famous Copacabana beach in Rio de Janiero was named after this small town in the Bolivian Andes, a sacred site for Catholics, and the birthplace of the Inca civilization. There is a resemblance, as the stretch of shore that lies on Lake Titicaca is the same shape as Copacabana Beach and nestled between 2 hills, like in Rio.

It was a relief to get out of the crowded city and take in the clean air and sunshine of Copacabana. As I mentioned, it sits on the shore of Lake Titicaca – an 8,000 square kilometer body of crystal clear water high in the Andes (we are over 12,000 feet).
After visiting the Catholic church, we hiked up one of the 2 hills overlooking the town, a lung-busting ½ hour straight up. But it felt good to stretch my legs after many days of “rest” while I acclimatized. My guide is a Ukranian woman who has lived in Bolivia for 15 years, and we have had some interesting discussions about communism and politics!

Tomorrow we are off to Isla del Sol – an island in the middle of the lake that is home to ancient Inca ruins.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

City of Contrasts

The people of La Paz like to describe the city as one of contrasts, and while it seems a cliché, it couldn’t be more true. I am constantly surprised. At a street fair today I saw bowler-clad cholas shoulder-to-shoulder with modern Pacenas walking pure-bred little dogs on harnesses. Mud-brick houses exist on the same block as gleaming Euro-style cafés. Steel-framed highrises stand out against the snow-capped Andes in the distance. Armed guards patrol every café, shop and office building while all I can see are peaceful-looking people strolling the streets (everyone walks slow which I figure must be due to the hills and altitude).

One thing I appreciate: while there are a lot of street vendors, they don’t hassle you like they do in Asia. Such a relief to walk the streets unmolested! On Day 4 I finally felt fairly normal, with no headache, and took to the streets amid the hail, rain, blinding sunshine and occasional wind. The weather changes constantly. It turned out that Sunday is a good day to walk as several of the streets are closed to cars and I wasn’t forced to breathe the fumes choking the narrow streets.

Tomorrow I am off to Lake Titicaca, which is the largest lake in the Andes and belongs to both Bolivia and Peru.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Headaches, Hills and Rain

Day 3 in La Paz and I am still getting altitude headaches. Or it could be massive sinus blockage brought on by an overdose of pollution. It seems as thought cars have no emissions controls, and the valley keeps the fumes close in. It was a relief to drive out to the site of Tiwanaku, ruins of an ancient city that pre-dates the Inca Empire. The ruins date from 1000 B.C. , and not much is left due to the effects of time, weather, and looting. The predominant theory is that rapid climate change brought about its demise in a matter of 50 years, after nearly 1500 years as the most powerful kingdom in the Andes. It certainly makes one think about the current climate crisis…

My second day was spent on a city tour of La Paz, accompanied by a few torrential downpours and hail. I guess the rainy season officially started September 21, so I will be lucky to have much sun. And although it is spring here, it is about as cold as our San Diego winters – even colder at night when it dips to close to freezing. Luckily, my city tour included a car and driver, which was much appreciated as the weather turned bad, and when I realized the extent of the hills of La Paz. My sea-level lungs are not yet ready for them.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Breathless in Bolivia

I realized that for future trips I should probably try to leave San Diego at night, when I can’t see what I am leaving. It was a clear, fine October day, and a new south swell was hitting the coast. Torture and regret as I watched from I-5 going past Camp Pendleton on my way to LAX.

So I arrived this morning in La Paz, Bolivia, landing at the world’s highest international airport (it clocks in with an altitude at over 12,000 feet). The thing to do when arriving suddenly at elevation is to rest, which wasn’t hard, given that I had slept only about ½ hour on the flight from Miami.

The airport is 1500 feet higher than the city, which is situated in ravine carved by the Choqueyapu River, a location chosen by the Spaniards 500 years ago to protect against the harsh winds that sweep across the Altiplano. The arrival and descent show a very brown, treeless landscape – the dry winter season has just ended and the rains will come soon.

I arrived sullen from lack of sleep and the sudden realization that I am back in a third-world country with all the attendant inconveniences. But in only a few hours the Pacenos have won me over. People are so nice. Not nice in the Thai-deferential way that makes you wonder what they are saying behind your back. Nice in the warm, hospitable and unassuming way that I suppose is common in many Latin American countries.

So far people have been very patient with my rusty Spanish; I can usually find the words to convey my thoughts, but it sometimes take a few repeats before I get the questions put to me. It’s been 2 ½ years since I used Spanish, so I am hoping it will get a bit easier in the coming weeks.