Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Bolivian Adventure

Jess, Hayley, and I arrived in Puno tired and hung over. Puno is a scrappy little town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. It's also the centre for the miners' strike that's been taking place along the Peru-Bolivia border. Besides its ridiculous name, Lake Titicaca is famous for being the highest commercially inhabited (e.g. more than the odd hut, there are actual towns) lake in the world, at 3811m above sea level (12000ft). After we found a hostel we hastily planned our Lake Titicaca trip and attempted to book transportation out of Puno, which was easier said than done with the strikes going on. Basically, the Peruvian miners were pissed they weren't getting paid enough, so to get the government's attention they blocked major roads, most of which have bus routes on them. This is a huge pain in the ass to those of us needing to take one of these routes, which just so happened to include me, Hayley, and Jess. So off we went for two days on Lake Titicaca not really knowing how, exactly, we were getting to our next destination. Personally, I was too hung over to care.

Floating Island, Lake Titicaca
Our Lake Titicaca experience started with a trip to the floating islands. They were fairly impressive. The islands are built out of a crap load of reeds all tethered together, and yes, they do really float, you can often feel the ground sink beneath you with every step. Although real families do live on the islands, their main source of income these days comes from tourism, so it's, well, touristy. Still, it's quite a sight to see, these yellowing reed globs all bobbing merrily together. Perhaps the coolest thing about the islands is how the locals there deal with neighbourhood disputes. If a disagreement arises and you wish your pain in the ass next door neighbour would just go away, no problem! All you have to do is grab your trusty machete, cut them loose, and away they'll float! Ha! And don't worry about them too much, they'll most likely find a new island community to anchor to.

Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca
Next we arrived for our home stay on Amantani, one of the largest islands on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. A cute little lady in traditional skirt, shall, headwear, and braids met us at the port, and no, they don't just wear this stuff for show. In fact, all over Peru you can see the flared and ruffled skirts and rainbow coloured shawls, although less in the big cities. Ugly, in my opinion, but I'm sure they think the same thing about some of my outfits. Anyway, she led us off through the farmers' fields, past slightly disheveled cottages, and to her quaint little home with garden out front and lake view. Not bad, except for the 5 minute walk to the out house, lack of interior heating, and really, who doesn't have internet these days? We were fed and walked up to the highest peak of the island for 360 degree views and sunset. At dinner they gave the three of us the table while the family huddled around the kitchen floor, which was slightly bazaar, since there were six chairs. We tried to have a conversation, but the language barrier made things a little strained.

The next day we returned to Puno after a bit more island hopping. The strikes were in full force by the time we got back with protesters marching through the street, breaking bank windows all over town (another way to get the government's attention), and forming a full out mob in the main plaza. It made us a bit nervous, not because we thought they would turn violent, but because we had places to go dammit! Luckily we met the world's best 'travel agent', a.k.a. lady who lurks around the bus depot and smuggles tourists across the border. Now this may sound shady, but I swear to God she was the best damn person I've ever had working for me. Not only did she get us where we needed to go, but she came to our hotel room to give us minute to minute updates, scoured town looking for us when she needed to inform us of an urgent change (we were eating dinner, she tracked us down in a restaurant, in a town of over 100,000 I might add!), and was even there in the morning to make sure we were up and let us know our buses were going. She should win some sort of award for customer service, this woman. If you ever meet Betty in the Puno bus terminal, say 'yes' to whatever she tells you, and give her a hug from Jess, Hayley, and Jordan.

La Paz, Bolivia
We had to get our passports stamped in a sketchy unidentified building by what I assume was the police the night before we left. We had to dodge protestors and rallies in the street. We had to cram into an unmarked minivan to get to the border. We had to maneuver around the rubble that still littered the road from the strikes. But for the love of God we were getting to Bolivia! Because she needed to catch her flight the next day, we left Jess with her fingers crossed that her bus would leave for Cusco. I think we unknowingly had horseshoes up our asses because we all made it to our destinations without trouble. 

And so we entered into Bolivia. One of South America's poorest nations, it is bone dry, chilly, and so high in elevation half the country is oxygen starved. There's a lush tropical rainforest too, apparently, but I didn't go there, so it's the cold desolation that remains fresh in my mind. Bolivians haven't quite figured out hospitality in the way that Peruvians have. Oh sure, they'll happily take your money, show you around, feed you maybe, but they're not going to inconvienience themselves by pretending to actually like you. I guess if I lived in such a thin aired, parched wasteland like they did, I'd be a little grumpy too.                                                             

Me and Hayley in La Paz
Our bus pushed its way through chaos as we made our way into La Paz. Traffic lurched as drivers battled for space on the road, horns were pounded aggressively. Swirls of particulates of all sorts of nastiness flew through the air as people jaywalked their way through town. As we finally dipped into the city centre I could see all of La Paz before me, a tangle of bricks clinging to the hillside, sliding their way into the valley bottom of high rise buildings. The snow capped mountains towered over the city, casting their mighty shadow over suburbia. The town itself bustles with people, crunches with traffic, and smells like exhaust mixed with fried chicken. There are cool activities to do in and around La Paz, if you have money. We didn't, so what's cool to do in La Paz if you are on a budget? Well my friends, a beer at a gringo's pub is $2. Wine is also cheap. Turns out, so is cocaine, which I heard through the commonly discussed grape vine you can buy for under $20 a gram from your bar tender. For those of you not up to speed on these things, that's dirt cheap. So when in La Paz you party, and party we did. We unfortunately experienced the most horrible bar of all time - Blue Lounge. All the hostel crowd goes there, but do yourself a favour and save yourself from the ear splitting music, hired male dancer whose signature move is the fist pump, and 40 minute wait at the bar. If you do want to go to La Paz's famous Route 36 Bar I can tell you it's not as sketchy as you might think, although expect an inevitable level of dodginess. I assume the police are being comfortably paid off to overlook the various illegal activities that occasionally (ok, sorry mom, frequently) take place there. Someone even told me the police have a share in the place, and I wouldn't be overly surprised if this were the case. Still, I have an inkling that Bolivian prison would suck big time, so party with caution. Compared to most we were almost prudishly conservative, and avoided any attention from law enforcement.

On the salt flats
 Tiring of the urban scene and La Paz's smoggy streets, me and Hayley booked our bus tickets to Uyuni and a two day salt flats tour. We first had to survive the 12 hour overnight bus ride which was horrendously cold, long, and bumpy. A few hours after we left the La Paz the road turned to gravel and I'm pretty sure the bus didn't have shocks. You can't sleep when you are being rattled out of your seat. You also can't sleep when it's so cold the condensation on the windows is turning to ice. A girl puked in the isle, motion sick from the jostling I imagine. It added to the enjoyment. We arrived in Uyuni at 7am feeling a bit wobbly, confused to be back on solid ground, and wishing for a bed. No time for that though, we had to quickly book bus tickets, eat breakfast, and get to our salt flats tour before it started in 2 hours. 

Our guides were as lovely as most Bolivians and didn't bother to introduce themselves when they picked us up in their 4x4. To be honest, I'm not even sure they said hello. We were warned that they would not speak English, we were not warned they were going pretend that there wasn't six of us crammed into their back seat. And crammed we were. The first three seats were ok, but the trunk seats were made for Bolivians, a.k.a. for someone 4 feet tall. Since all of us towered far above that, the unlucky 3 whose turn it was in the back got so crunched their knees were practically in their armpits. Comfy. The 4 foot tall guide/cook rode comfortably in shot gun, the ENITRE 3 days. Bitch. Maybe it was the miserable bus ride, or the grumpy guides, the shit seats, or perhaps the altitude, but I felt ill the entire tour to differing degrees of severity. The first night I got heart burn that radiated burning up my esophagus until I puked, and this has never happened before in my life. As this was not a commonly occurring problem for me I had nothing to treat it. I rummaged through my bag looking for something, anything to help. Sure that a hole was about to burn through my chest, I desperately swallowed globs of calcium enhanced toothpaste. Miraculously, it helped. Still, I barely slept for the second night in a row and I chugged 'antiacido', purchased at the hospital the next day, for the rest of the trip. I generally felt exhausted, queasy, stuffed up, disgruntled. And it was fucking cold! Wind chill of minus a bajillion, I swear. Why the hell do I sign up for this shit, I wondered, irritated. I just wanted a warm bed, a good movie, and 5 gallons of hot chocolate. I did my best to hide it and felt bad for Hayley as I feared she was with me at the unfortunate moment I was coming down with a bad case of travel burn out. On the positive side, my lack of appetite meant that I didn't have to worry about not liking the food - I wasn't going to eat it regardless.

Same truck on the salt flats, looking tiny
Truck on the salt flats, actual size
The fact that I STILL enjoyed myself and came out with a positive experience speaks to the wonder and beauty of the region. And thank you Hayley for not killing me in my bad tempered lethargy (although I thought I restrained fairly well from being a total bitch - correct me if I'm wrong). The first day we spent on the great white expanse that is the salt flat, the biggest in the world I believe. I'm not going to bore you with the details, but in short, the flats are what's left of a ginormous prehistoric lake. And is big and white and flat and, unsurprisingly, salty. So much so that your eyes don't really understand the expanse of it, things are magnified and minimized in strange ways.  

Incahuasi Island with Cacti, Salt Flats
There are also islands that punctuate the salt flats. Well, they're ancient islands, there's not so much in the way of a lake covering this part of the salt flats these days. Even in the prehistoric days the 'islands' were actually submerged corals or underwater volcanoes, so what I'm really saying is they were never actually islands at all. But they appear that way today, 'shoreline' and all. On our first day we stopped at one such island, called Incahuasi, and it was definitely a strange sight to see. Rising out of the white salt was a massive hunk of reddish rock that was entirely encrusted with massive, orange-spiked cacti. Despite feeling as if I would like to die, I couldn't help but climb to the top (I'm slightly obsessed with climbing to the top of things, I love a good photo op., and I hate doing things halfway - incase you hadn't noticed) and it was by far worth it.

After a painful, esophagus burning night in a salt hotel (literally a hotel made from large, pure salt blocks) we continued south away from the salt flats. The terrain here is completely unworldly, so desolate and barren I felt as though I'd been plunked down on planet Mars. It was also painfully cold, with a cutting wind that made even a few minutes outside unbearable. We stopped at several salt lagoons, half frozen and seemingly lifeless pools of brine that were skirted with snow dusted mountains. Except for they were not entirely lifeless, flamingos actually attempt to scrape out a living here, and they must be eating something. My best guess is algae, which I assume could survive the hyper saline and ridiculously cold conditions. At certain times of year the flamingos flock to the lagoons in great numbers to breed. We were not here at this time, but you could still see a few baby pink clumps wading in the distance, bravely bearing the icy winds.  


Sunrise over steaming hot springs
On our last day we were up and out before sunrise. The day was filled with more extraterrestrial experiences as we contemplated strange geomorphic formations, steaming geysers, bubbling hot springs, and wide desolate expanses of reddy brown earth. It was also the day that I almost killed our driver for his horrible taste in music, which he had cranked on repeat ALL DAY. Now, the Peruvians have their flute music - which is mildly annoying,  especially when some kid follows you through his village attempting to play the wretched thing and then tries to demand a tip for his 'performance' (Yes, this happened more than once). But what the Bolivians have done with a synthesizer is just plain unholy. It should be illegal. Imagine, if you dare, high pitched electronic ditties reminiscent of 1990s video game music, but on crack. There is absolutely no base, and they beat is EXACTLY the same for every song, so that you're not even sure it IS a different song. All this it set against a winey Enrique Inglesias style voice - but ten times worse. At least Enrique, according to popular opinion anyway, can actually SING. These people cold not. Then imagine sitting in a SUV for hours on end, with your knees crunched to your shoulders, altitude sickness raging, and this abomination being blasted over the speakers. My normally calm, placid demeanor was wearing thin and even with earplugs, I was close to loosing my shit. I was on the edge of a loud and aggressive meltdown that involved beating the unfriendly Bolivian driver to his death. In a slightly insane last resort I instead pressed my head to the window, which with the earplugs vibrated through my skull creating a large and soothing buzz that blocked out any other noise. I took deep breaths. My Zen and sanity took a serious test out on those salt flats.    

Geomorphic formations, steaming geysers, flamingo lagoons

It took me a few days to recover from the salt flats. I had come down with a serious cold, completely lost any signs of an appetite, and my energy levels were suffering. I needed warmth and I needed oxygen. A few days in Sucre, more than 1000m lower in elevation, was a perfect place to recover. Sucre is Bolivia's capital and is lined with pastel coloured colonial buildings and shady trees. I don't have much to say about it, because we didn't do much. We read our books on sunny benches, sipped wine, watched movies on our hostel's TV, and ate ice cream. Ahhhh. After I was on the mend we also went climbing, which was a first for me. Initially terrifying, once I learned to trust that the rope would, in fact, catch me if I fell, I had no problems scaling the cliff face. Since Whistler and Squamish are climbing meccas, this may be a hobby I take up when I get home!

Then it was time to say goodbye to Hayley. She left in a taxi for her flight back home and I stood on the curb waving her off. After she was out of sight I lingered for a moment. Everything seemed quiet. Alone again. . . 


  1. Jordie,
    Glad to hear an update on your adventures! I am living vicariously through your travels so you are not alone :)

    Take care of yourself, miss you.

  2. Thanks Dibbs! On the homestretch now! xo