Boats, Floats, and Automobuses: Fleeing Bolivia

Trip Start May 05, 2011
Trip End Sep 08, 2011

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Where I stayed
Pariwana Hostel
What I did
Evaded angry protestors, fell over, ate toffee apples...

Flag of Peru  ,
Tuesday, June 21, 2011

One stormy lunchtime, around two-and-a-half years ago, a group of carefree students sat around a lunchtable at Wolfson Court (Girton's colony in Cambridge - sort of), musing as students do. Actually, this time, they were engaged in an unprecedented, abnormal level of musing. Because on this occasion, yours truly had just asked a rather fascinating question: 'Where do you think you will be in 5 years time?' Of course, there was the predictable flurry of 'I don't knows', along with the determined answer that emanated from a confident few; 'in an investment bank, making millions, of course' (!) My answer was simple; 'Oh, in a Bolivian jail, I expect. For inciting revolution, or something similar.'

Well, the good news is that I escaped from Bolivia without provoking the ire of the state, and I haven't ended up in a South American prison (I still have 2 and a half years to accomplish this incarceration, so the prediction might yet come true!) Nonetheless, my fugitive prediction was eerily prescient. As I stared into the darkness of Lake Titicaca's still waters, deprived of light in order to avoid attracting the attention of a group of angry Peruvian protestors blocking the roads (who have been known to torch the boats that ran past their blockade; empty, not with tourists on them - YET) I felt that, perhaps, I was on the run in a very different way...

I'll get to the conflict, and to the incredible protests around Puno, Peru, and Lake Titicaca. First, let's go back to La Paz. Peaceful, panoramic, bizarrely beautiful La Paz. Last time I wrote, I had arrived and thoroughly ensconced myself in the city by doing the ultimate gringo thing: I went shopping for llama and alpaca goods (by the way, I'd like to point out that, unlike the majority of travellers in my hostel, I was far too cool to wear my llama jumper in the bar (which was like a sea of tourist knitwear)). Well - I continued to explore La Paz in a thoroughly predictable way, and the next day I went to visit the Coca Museum (which left me far too well informed, and riled up against western exploitation of the trade in coca leaves - both legal, and non-illegal). I also did some unpredictable stuff - I visited the (incredibly small) Bolivian national art gallery, the Cathedral, and I tried (and almost succeeded in) sneaking into the Bolivian Parliament. I was amazed by the aesthetic contradictions of La Paz;  bare brick, unfinished newsagents next to the Presidential Palace; slums stretching up the hill, whilst prime real estate was in ruins; colonial buildings and broken-down skyscrapers next to one another. I liked La Paz; I even liked the 2 pound four-course meal that was soon to return to wreak its vengence. But I was happy to leave. The city could only hold me so long, and whilst the road to Puno in Peru was open, I had to make a break for it.

Thus, the next day, I set out determined to make the crossing. I caught a local's bus to Copacabana, Bolivia (on the edge of Lake Titicaca, and on the frontier with Peru). I rushed out into the sunshine of Copacabana's surprisingly nice plaza, determined to make a break for the bus...and I hit the brick wall. Not literally. I was caught, like so many other tourists, by the Peruvian protests.

A number of Peruvians, fearful of a proposed plan to allow foreign corporations to set up a factory near Lake Titicaca, have upped sticks and headed to Puno, the biggest city on Lake Titicaca. To make themselves heard, they have blocked roads - between Bolivia and Puno, and between Puno and Cuzco - and in the process, they have hit the government where it hurts most: tourism. Unfortunately, since there are very few roads, and few ways over the border and in to mountainous inner-Peru, they have also hurt tourists and travellers. Sometimes, that have actually hurt them: buses trying to cross the blockade have faced volleys of stones, and no groups have made it across the barricades without abandoning their bus and walking through the night. Of course, Lake Titicaca is navigable by boat, and that's how I got across. But protestors have been known to torch boats after they have landed, during the night, and the boat journey is 9-11 hours. And it is a little dangerous in the total darkness, hiding from protestors. Not forgetting the fact that the boats are overloaded by Bolivian travel agents hoping to make a quick buck, and that if they sank, lifevests would be scarce. You begin to see my fugitive sentiment.

What made the prospect of the 12 hour blockade-running a bit worse was the fact that, when I got to Copacabana, food poisoning from my Bolivian super-value meal hit me. Actually, I was able to mitigate my depressing circumstances by retreating into my room and watching cable TV. However, although this made me feel a little better, I ended up watching an incredibly depressing indie film starring Robert de Niro called 'Everbody's Fine', Most misleading title ever.

Nonetheless, the next morning, I was excited about the prospect of my blockade-running adventure. And it was exciting, and even the odd bits - exceedingly lax border controls (considering that we were coming from Bolivia, you would think they might screen our baggage), having to take a punt to the ferry, almost falling over passengers that were crammed on (even on to the roof), making our way to Puno in total darkness - were fun. And Lake Titicaca is beautiful. But I have seen enough of it now to last a lifetime.

When I finally got to Puno on Friday night, I decided to stick around until Monday to catch the train to Cuzco. Well, it seemed like a smart move, given that the only direct road was blocked, and the train itself promised to be an experience (the train is the old Orient Express, shipped over from Europe - it's incredible, though expensive). So I ended up seeing Puno with a Puerto Rican guy staying in my hostel. It was interesting - there were enigmatic funerial towers around the hilltops, and we visited the floating islands on the lake, and ate some pretty decent fresh trout. Nonetheless, I still curse the protestors for holding me there against my will.

The floating islands were nice, if a little inauthentic - few people actually life there, and they bus in teenagers from Puno to sing songs and weave crafts as a Saturday job. However, they are interesting as a living museum - and I guess that's important too. What made my brief visit to the floating islands most spectacular was a spectacular fall - off a watchtower on the reed islands, thankfully not into the freezing water. But I did scrape my leg rather badly, which made walking the rest of the day a bit of a pain. In truth, it's all a little funny, and I am rather a coinnasseur of people-falling-over, so I already look back and laugh. Was rather glad to finally get away from Puno, though...

Once more, disaster struck. My train was cancelled, due to protestors putting rocks on the tracks. So, after getting up extremely early to catch my train, I wearily headed over to the bus station. 14 hours (and an admittedly pretty bus journey) later, I was in Cuzco: thankfully warmer, able to take a hot shower for the first time in days (it is minus 10 in Puno, and the cold shower put me off regular showers somewhat), and exhausted. I slept well.

When I awoke, I discovered an amazing city. Cuzco is beautiful, full of colonial buildings and Inca ruins, and it is bustling with revellers. 24 June is Inti Raymi, the Inca winter solstice, and festival of the sun god. The Peruvians don't limit their revels to one day, and through the whole day, I've seen thousands of Peruvians out in the streets, in masks, traditional costumes, on stilts, on giant floats, dancing, singing, and eating. It's been incredible! I've also managed to fit in a visit to the famed ancient golden courtyard (which was originally covered in gold). I have booked my tour for Machu Picchu (departing at 6am tomorrow), eaten well, watched impromptu concerts, eaten toffee apples and the BEST candyfloss I've had in years, and as I write this, there is sweet music outside in the streets. All I can say is, I can't wait until the 24th! (apparently, they sacrifice a llama). Tomorrow I'm off to Machu Picchu - which will be incredible - and so I must finish and go pack my stuff. A bit of a contrast from my journey from La Paz. Nonetheless, this whole week has been pretty unusual and incredible. It is definitely something I'll remember in 5 year's time!

Bring on the incas...

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