A much needed escape

Trip Start Sep 28, 2006
Trip End May 04, 2007

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Thursday, November 16, 2006

I woke up at 5 am and could not go back to sleep. At least Bolivia, where I am headed this morning, is an hour ahead! 6 am somehow seems slightly more normal than 5 am. I had another breakfast of champions--three rolls with butter and a banana (opted to skip the coffee syrup and "juice" that my hotel served). A middle-aged woman from Marseille was sitting at the table next to me, so we started chatting. She seemed nice enough, but I did a double take when she claimed that she had no desire to visit the United States because of what we "did to the Native Americans." I have heard some interesting reasons for not wanting to visit America, but this one threw me for a loop. I'm sorry, and what did the French "do" to the Vietnamese? And the Africans? And Indonesians? And please remind me, who was it who colonized North America? Didn't they come from EUROPE? Oh, and aren't we currently in a place where the Spaniards decimated Inca culture and civilization? Yeah, that is a REALLY good reason not to come to America. I politely responded that I think all countries have a history of persecution...

Gary met me at my hotel and we caught a cab to the terminal to catch our 7:30 am bus to Copacabana. Our driver was nuts--your typical crazy young guy who loves to honk and pass on blind curves and drive super fast. A guy sitting across from us put on his seat belt after a particularly nerve-wracking part of the ride, and we decided to do the same, as if it would really make much of a difference. HA. The border crossing ended up being a piece of cake. I have no clue why I had ever worried about it! Well, I do, because of all the sketchy things I kept reading on the LP forum and elsewhere, but I felt quite foolish once we arrived in Bolivia. We got off the bus around 10 am, changed some US dollars and got rid of our soles on the Peruvian side (not the best exchange rate, 1 dollar for 7.8 Bol, but not terrible either). We then walked to Puervian immigration to get our exit stamp, walked 100 meters across the border under the big arch to Bolivian immigration, got an entry stamp, picked up our bags from the bus and transferred them to the top of a smaller bus, and then ten minutes later we were in the center of Copacabana. It was beyond easy. I am sure plenty of scams have taken place, but with such a huge bus load of tourists I think it would have been a bit harder to pull something weird.

Finding a hostel was another story. I know many backpackers prefer to show up in a city and figure out lodging on the fly, and although I like to have that kind of freedom and of course have more bargaining power in person than over email, it is nice to know where you are going and to not have to deal with the hassle of dragging your pack all around town. I set off to find a hostel with Gary and his three friends from Puno (an older Swiss woman and two women in their mid thirties, Louise and Claudia, who are traveling together) because we all got off the bus at the same time. Gary, the Swiss woman and I all wanted singles, while the other girls were looking for a double. Our first stop was terrible. Our second stop, Hotel Utama, was a huge pain in the butt. The guy at the front desk was an idiot, and he kept changing his story as to how many rooms he had free and how much they each cost. The place was not disgusting, but for six bucks I thought I would be able to get something a bit nicer in Bolivia than a single room without windows, almost no light, a terrible bed, and a scary electric shower. In other words, I was staying in a smelly dungeon. I had wanted to stay next door at La Cupula, a much nicer hotel with a great restaurant and helpful, friendly staff, but they were booked. Gary and the Swiss woman took the last singles at La Cupula after all the fuss at Hotel Utama, and Louise and Claudia got an amazing suite there for only 12 dollars each. That is one of the downsides of traveling alone--finding a room is often a bit more difficult and always more expensive. Many places don't have single rooms, just rooms with two beds and if they do not have dorms they will charge you double. Oh well, the price I have to pay. At least my Israeli friends from Amantani were staying in my hotel so I wasn't there alone. Plus, I was able to book La Cupula for Friday night, so I had something to look forward to!

I needed some alone time after the morning's craziness, so I spent a couple hours exploring Copacabana. Even though it is a tiny town with one main street, Copacabana is SERIOUSLY teeming with backpackers. Or perhaps it just seemed that way because it was so small. I was craving some solitude, but it was still nice to see other young travelers running around. After grabbing an ice cream and a candy bar, I visited this Moorish-style cathedral, which was very impressive against the bright blue sky. The interior was extremely ornate, an elaborate web of carvings all in gold. The Benedicion de Movilidades (blessing of the automobiles) takes place every morning and afternoon in front of this church, and although I didn't get to witness this curiosity I did arrive just in time to see the beginning of some sort of religious procession. As I approached the church entrance, a massive crowd of people emerged from the doors carrying an idol of the Virgin Mary (or perhaps it was another patron saint) around the plaza and throughout the town, throwing rose petals in the air and setting off fireworks every two seconds. A marching band, a whole line of cars decorated with elaborate flower arrangements , and several other cars boasting various odd things such as stuffed animals proceeded the idol. This was the strangest car I saw...I am not exactly sure what the significance of all this was, but it was certainly fun to watch. Here's another shot of the same car on a different street. The stuffed animals seem to be floating above the crowd, which I found pretty funny.

I wandered around some of the food markets, and everywhere I went I encountered this stuff pictured here. I don't know what its name is, but it is kind of like kettle corn but with much bigger kernels and always somewhat stale. I first tried it with Gary in Cusco, but never saw it in such massive quantities as I did here. This street consisted of store after store selling gigantic bags of the stuff, in different forms and colors too, which I don't understand. Is the demand really that high? My favorite sighting was 5 of the HUGEST bags you have ever seen filled with this stuff piled on top of a station wagon, and the interior of the car was stuffed with it as well. It weighs nothing, of course, but looked so strange!

I also checked out some tour agencies to gather info for my trip to Isla del Sol the following morning. I decided to do a day trip rather than spend the night there, and bought what I thought was a round trip ticket to Isla del Sol that would leave around 8:30 am, drop me off at the North end of the island, and would take me back to town from the South end of the island in the afternoon. I also bought Gary and I tickets to La Paz, as we both had decided to take our time and head back on the more secure tourist bus on Saturday at 1:30 pm, rather than try to rush out Friday evening or early Saturday morning on one of the local buses. The ride is only 3 or 4 hours, but we wanted to take advantage of having paid for a lovely hotel and being in such a pretty, peaceful city. La Paz certainly isn't going anywhere, and I am honestly not dying to go there.

As I was starting to think about grabbing lunch, I ran into the Israelis from Puno and ended up eating with them at one of the touristy places lining the main drag down to the harbor. The restaurant was empty (usually my clue to go elsewhere), but they wanted to eat there and I didn't really care. I was the fifth, non-Israeli wheel and found it quite funny when our Bolivian waiter started speaking Hebrew to all of us. Definitely a clue that this is a well traveled spot among Israelis! It was the same in Cusco, but I still found it pretty interesting. After lunch, I hit up the nicest of the many internet cafes, which was consequently a bit pricey (nearly two bucks an hour!). I stayed there for three hours, and was super excited to learn that my good friend Kristen will most likely be flying down to Brazil to celebrate Carnival with me! I was already quite convinced that I would not be there alone, considering how many travelers I have met already who are planning to go there at the same time. However, it is better of course to celebrate with an old, close friend and I really hope it works out!

I had dinner with Gary and his friends at La Cupula restaurant, which was quite delicious. I had grilled Kingfish (far better than trout, which is the most commonly served fish) with quinoa salad and a massive fresh fruit salad with whipped cream, ice cream and chocolate sauce for dessert, all for seven bucks (and this was a fancy restaurant). Not the best thing for my already upset stomach, but it was worth it! I can definitely get used to hanging out in Bolivia. The restaurant had a bunch of brochures on display, one of which was Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, a popular company with which to bike the "World's Most Dangerous Road" from La Paz to Coroico. I was impressed with their brochure, and as I have heard about the "death road" many times from Brandon and other people, I think I will check it out over the weekend.

Although Friday morning did not start out too great, I had a lovely time visiting Isla del Sol. I woke up around 6 am, didn't even attempt the electric shower, packed, dropped my stuff off at La Cupula, and then headed back to Hotel Utama for breakfast. Karmit, one of my Israeli friends, was there so we ate our pancakes, yogurt, fruit, eggs, and nasty coffee syrup stuff together. Her and her friends took the same boat to the island, so I ran into them several times over the course of the day. I picked up some snacks for my hike and dropped by the tour agency, angry to learn that my boat ticket was one-way, even though I had asked for a return ticket and the woman from the previous night had said it was. Oh well. I managed to convince the guy on the boat to give me a return ticket for only five bol more (we're talking less than a dollar) rather than 15, so no biggie.

The two-hour boat ride from Copacabana to the north shore of Isla del Sol was brutal. First, it was raining, which did not bode well for spending the day hiking around the island. Second, I could swim faster than the boat was moving, and that is saying a lot! Lastly, the rocking was so fierce and the exhaust fumes so strong that I thought I was going to get sick. Poor Karmit did vomit, three times actually, as did another woman, so I wasn't alone. We finally got to Cha'llapampa on the North shore of the island around 10:45 am. The weather had miraculously cleared, and the water was the most gorgeous blue! I paid 10 bol to get into the small museum and to see the ruins a bit northwest of where we had been let off. There were a bunch of guides forcing their services upon people (very sneaky, as it seemed like it was included in the ticket but it was not), but I was desperately wanting to be alone so I ran ahead of everyone. The 45-minute hike to the Chincanca ruins began with a brief walk across a beach and then up a path alongside the arid mountain. It was so liberating walking by myself and hearing nothing but the crashing of waves and an occasional llama or donkey sound.

The Inca site, although no Machu Picchu, was awesome and tranquil since no one else had arrived yet. It was sunny but with a cool breeze--in other words, the most perfect hiking weather. I wandered through all the little doors and tunnels, which revealed spectacular views of the beach down below. This part of the ruins is called the Palacio del Inca or El Laberinto (Labyrinth), and I stayed here for awhile collecting my thoughts and taking in the scenery. Next I visited Titi Khar'ka or the "Rock of the Puma," a natural formation resembling a crouching puma when viewed from behind. This is this stone from which Lake Titicaca takes its name.

The other tourists arrived shortly thereafter but I managed to shoot ahead once again. Consequently, I had the trail to the southern end of the island entirely to myself. It was so nice to get away from the hordes of people, cars, vendors, and everything else. I seriously needed some time to regroup (not to mention some exercise), and came away from the day feeling calm and mentally rejuvenated! The hike was rolling hills, more up than down, and took me less than two hours to complete. I spent the first half listening to the waves and enjoying the silence, and the second half jamming to my favorite songs on my ipod which was incredibly fun. There was no one around, so I was able to sing along as loudly as I pleased. I took this video shortly after leaving the ruins and all the tourists. From here, the views became increasingly spectacular. Here is another small Inca site that I encountered.
I got to the first restaurant around 2 pm, almost two hours before my return boat departed. With plenty of time to spare, I decided to climb up a random mountain that had caught my eye and reach the highest point on the island. There was no actual path, so I asked a local farmer to point me in the right direction. I had to climb up the Inca-like terraces and do a bit of improv climbing. My challenging detour was totally worth it! I reached the top and enjoyed amazing 360 degree views of Isla de la Luna and the surrounding mountains. There was only one other person around, an Austrian guy randomly camping off to the side. He was just as surprised to see me wander by as I was to see him cooking his lunch over the campfire. I continued onwards to the tip of the flat peak, had a snack, took this video , and chilled for a bit before heading back down to the beaten path. I would have loved to have visited Isla de la Luna, which as its name indicates is apparently beautiful at night in the moonlight, but hey, you can't do everything.

As I headed through the little town towards the south shore's harbor, I stopped to check out the view one last time of the snow-capped mountains and of Isla del Luna from the back patio of one of the island's hostel s. There were hardly any people around, except for a young guy from Puerto Rico who was sitting at one of the tables and writing in his journal with a glass of wine. That was EXACTLY what I wanted to be doing at that moment. We soon struck up a conversation about our travel experiences. He has been staying at this hostel for several days, and after having had such an amazing afternoon I was tempted to forget about my boat ticket, my stuff back in Copacabana, and my pre-paid hotel room and stay the night as well. As he said, I have 5 months, so what's the rush? I am sick of rushing myself! I was so drawn to the island's tranquil atmosphere and to the thought of chilling at that table and taking in the view for the rest of the day, but decided to head back to town to avoid all the hassle and extra expenses I would create for myself otherwise. La Cupula was at least a welcoming destination...

On my way to catch my boat, I encountered these donkeys. They just stood in my way and stared at me until I took a picture, and then as soon as I put my camera away they parted like the Red Sea and continued up the path. I continued down the path, past all the restaurants and down to my favorite boat in the world. I sat up on top this time, and the ride, although long, definitely was not as painful as in the morning. I enjoyed the nice weather and views, and chatted with a couple of other travelers. As we approached Copacabana, one of the guys pointed out the Bolivian navy. It is quite amusing that a land-locked nation has a navy, isn't it? I suppose Lake Titicaca warrants one.

As soon as I got back to Copacabana, I took a long, hot shower and chilled in my room for a bit at La Cupula, which was really comfortable and quite spacious. I didn't have my own bathroom, but it was right across the hall and super clean. I highly recommend this hotel to anyone passing through. It was slightly expensive for a backpacker's budget, ten bucks, but it was worth it. The people were so friendly and helpful (they even called my hotel in La Paz to reserve a room for me), the views fabulous, and the restaurant was delicious. I particularly enjoyed my massive breakfast of eggs, fresh "weed" (ie wheat) bread, a huge bowl of fresh tropical fruit with yogurt and museli, delicious coffee, and banana juice made with milk, all for two bucks. Can't beat that!

I hung out with Gary and some other hotel guests in the restaurant, and watched the most amazing sunset from the terrace. Gary, Louise, Claudia and I ended up eating dinner together at a very mediocre and super slow restaurant, and the whole experience put me in a bad mood. I must confess, Louise and Claudia kind of rub me the wrong way, or at least Claudia does. I don't know if it is the age difference or cultural misunderstandings or what, but I am just not a huge fan. Making conversation was really frustrating. I felt like every time I tried to say something they ignored me. Or maybe they didn't hear me. So finally I gave up and sat there totally silent, which as many of you know is not normal for me! We got drinks at the restaurant where I ate lunch at yesterday, and it seemed like a completely different place with the live music, candle light, and tons of people. I got a hot chocolate (my usual choice when I don't feel like drinking) and listened to the young guy sing some Buena Vista Social Club tunes and play along on his guitar. I was still a bit cranky, but the combo of chocolate and good music cheered me up a bit. I am really looking forward to being out and about on my own in La Paz. I of course have not been obligated to hang out with anyone this past week, but other than my time on Isla del Sol I haven't been alone all that much.

I was a total zombie on Saturday morning after having only slept for three hours. I woke up at 2:30 am, tossed and turned in my comfy bed, and finally turned on the lights and decided to be a productive insomniac. I read half my LP Bolivia, made a rough Bolivia itinerary, a list of stuff I needed to do over the next few weeks, and some possible ideas of where to go with my parents in Argentina and Chile. I also sadly bit all of my nails off (I had finally managed to grow them out to the point that I could get a manicure!), so they are back to being short and disgusting.

Our bus to La Paz didn't leave until 1:30 pm on Saturday, so after a huge and delicious breakfast, Gary, Louise and I hiked up a hill behind our hotel to a local shrine with great views. Actually, I am not quite sure what it was, but we were the only tourists there. At the base of the hill, groups of locals were drinking beer (it was 9:30 am) and burning incense. As we hiked up the mountain, we saw the most incredible lightening (picture perfect bolts) and heard deafening thunder. The storm clouds seemed to be approaching and we were afraid the skies would open up just as we reached the top, but thankfully the rain never came. The top of this mountain consisted of a line of large, stone crosses and shrines . Countless locals were selling miniature cars, houses, fake money, you name it . I believe the locals buy these things for good fortune, blessing the objects of their desire. For example, if they own a store and hope for good business, they can buy a miniature store to bless. It was quite interesting to watch!

After our hike, I did some email and grabbed an early lunch on my hotel's patio overlooking the harbor. Louise and Claudia were on a different bus but at the same time, so we all headed down to the plaza together. It was quite a mob scene! Billions of buses and backpackers, no one really sure which bus was the correct one. Gary and I finally found ours, and since there were no assigned seats we all rushed the bus as soon as the doors open. Gary and I snagged a couple good seats towards the front of the bus. The ride was about four hours including a stop to cross Tiquina, a body of water that I am guessing is part of Lake Titicaca. We all had to get off the bus, go through passport control and pay 13 cents to get on tiny motor boats that took us across while our bus drove onto a platform and was rowed across the water. The bus looked like it was about tip over at any moment and still carried all of our packs, so it was a bit nerve-wracking to watch it bobble along. The rest of the ride was pretty mellow, and the scenery was quite boring. I have not been in a big city since Quito, so it might be a bit strange for me...Vamos a ver, I guess!
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starlagurl on

Really nice blog
I read your blog and loved it! Great work, keep it up.

Louise Brown
TravelPod Community Manager

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