Week 5: Lake Titicaca & La Paz, Bolivia

Trip Start Mar 31, 2014
Trip End Sep 18, 2014

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Flag of Bolivia  , La Paz Department,
Monday, May 5, 2014

Buenos Dias!

This week we headed to Puno, the small town on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. It is a very touristy town, with very little to do apart from visit the Islands on the lake, and hence other than organise our day tour we spent the rest of the time planning our next week ahead and watching football on TV.

Lake Titicaca is not only the largest lake in South America but is also the highest navigable lake in the world at over 3,800m above sea level. Puno was the highest city we'd stayed in so far, and since we had ascended over 1,500m from Arequipa the altitude soon caught up with us. Sal was fine, however Mitch was the one to be knocked back a bit with ongoing headaches for several days, particularly at night, as well as huffing and puffing every 10 metres like a pack a day smoker!

Due to the altitude sickness we had to push our lake tour back a day but we eventually got out there, visiting the famous Uros Floating Islands first. These are man-made Islands, built completely with totora reeds (which when peeled back can also used as food, which we saw first hand as one of the kids chewed away whilst we were there). We were given a mini demonstration of how the Islands are built, with lots and lots of layers of reeds interweaved to a depth of around 3 metres. We also took a trip on one of their boats, also built with reeds (and these days, stuffed with plastic bottles), across to the 'capital' of the Islands.

Our next stop on the tour was Taquile Island, a 2.5 hour boat ride away. Taquile Island is known for maintaining a traditional way of life with the locals still speaking their indigenous language and maintaining many old traditions, whilst also having good views over Lake Titicaca and nearby Bolivia. After a tough hike up to the main square, we enjoyed a nice lunch and were informed about some of these traditions on the Island, before walking back down to the lake to take the boat back to Puno. The 2.5 hour trip back turned into about 3.5 hours as the boat broke down multiple times coming into town, but we eventually made it!

The following day we took an early bus to Copacabana in Bolivia, with a stop at the border. An experience we had heard awful stories about, turned out to be simple and painless; we all got off the bus and visited the Peruvian immigration office, before walking over the hill, across the border and then visiting the Bolivian immigration office to 'check-in'.

Once we arrived in Copacabana, we headed down to the dock to organise a trip to Isla Del Sol (Island of the Sun) for the afternoon. The boat seemed to be chock full of people and was a quick introduction to Bolivian safety standards and tourist services. After the 1.5 hour boat ride, we had about an hour on the Island which we spent hiking up the mainland to see a bit of the town and find good views over the lake, before we headed back to the boat and back to Copacabana with a quick stop at the Sun Temple.

The following day, before we boarded our afternoon bus to La Paz, we were lucky enough to see the start of one of the key festivals in the Bolivian calendar, the Fiesta da la Cruz (Festival of the Cross), in the main square. This 4 day party is characterised by music, dancing, drinking, and firecrackers! The place was full of women in bright, bulbous dresses and men dressed in costumes resembling lanterns or Chinese dragons dancing through the streets to the sounds of marching bands. Although we only caught about an hour of this before we had to catch our bus, we were lucky enough to slowly drive past 2 other parades in much smaller towns on our way to La Paz, with one marching right by our halted bus.

The 4 hour bus ride from Copacabana to La Paz had fantastic views over Lake Titicaca, possibly better than those we experienced on our trips out to the Islands. The trip also involved a water crossing, which meant we all had to get off the bus and hop onto a rickety wooden boat to cross the lake, whilst we watched our bus be loaded onto a barge and cross too. Another interesting experience.

We arrived in La Paz in the early evening, but were still able to get great views over the city as we drove down from a height of over 4,000m above sea level to the city centre at around 3,600m - the highest capital city in the world. On our first full day in La Paz we did a city walking tour, which was really good and included visits to the witches market, several other big markets and main squares, and very interesting stories about their infamous San Pedro prison (worth a google), past and present presidents and Bolivia's turbulent political history.

After this tour we decided to jump on to the extended tour. With the group we took Combi vans to El Alto, the fastest growing city in Bolivia situated at the very edge of La Paz. Here we had great views of the city, before walking through one of the largest markets in the world, with kilometres of stalls selling not just food and clothes, but also electricals (new and used/stolen from tourists), toys, car parts, etc.

After the market we visited one of the funniest and most enjoyable sports we've ever been to - Cholita Wrestling. This is the Bolivian women's version of WWF wrestling, with Bolivian women dressed in traditional clothing entering the ring for a bout, and displaying some impressive wrestling moves and techniques. They put on a pretty good show, even before they entered the ring (also certainly worth a google). We were given free water and popcorn upon entering, but halfway through realised it isn't entirely for consuming - with many spectators using it to throw at their least favourite wrestler (and often it came back in return, with the wrestler grabbing a bottle of water or even soda and spraying it over the spectators who weren't on her side).

After the wrestling we visited a witch doctor, who gave us each a reading of our future using cocoa leaves. Thankfully we both got pretty good readings, so the future looks fairly bright, well, other than perhaps the minor injury or broken bone Mitch should expect "doing something he loves.."!

A busy week coming up with a few more days in La Paz before heading to the Amazon and then the Salt Flats for some very exciting tours!

Hasta Luego,

Mitch and Sally
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