Saturday, December 17, 2011

Monica's Notes on Bolivia

It is December 17 and we've been in Buenos Aires for two days now. I have to say it feels great to be back in a real, safe, modern city, after spending several weeks in Peru and Bolivia. It finally feels like vacation. Since everyone here eats dinner at 10pm and goes out clubbing at midnight or 2am, at around 8pm people are taking naps or siestas before going out. I'm now using my 8pm siesta to look back on Bolivia and write this blog post. The photos below are in random order. Enjoy!

La Paz at night seen from a pedestrian bridge crossing over one of the main streets. La Paz has about 1.5 million inhabitants, and it borders with El Alto, an extension of the city that lies on the altiplano outside the bucket. The city La Paz looks like a bucket, located at almost 4,000 meters. At the bottom of the bucket there lies the downtown (quite literally) and some of the nice neighborhoods where rich people live. On the slopes of the bucket are the poorer people. It's incredible to see that houses are built all the way until the edge of the bucket. To leave the city, you have to drive on switchback roads until the top. At the top, there's a separate city called El Alto. The top is also flat for a while, known as the high altitude plain of South America (or "altiplano"). Imagine a plain at 4000 meters. Then more mountains in the distance, going up to over 6000 meters.

The image above is a view from the bus going into La Paz. Not much grows here, but high altitude grass, therefore the scenery is peppered with sheep and llamas. The place looks a bit outer-worldly, but nevertheless majestic. When it rains, tons of little waterfalls gush down the side of the mountains and into the large ditches built on the side of the roads. I am humbled to see humans have managed to master the place and survive in such harsh conditions.

All my clothes and insoles of my shoes hanging to dry in our room in Coroico. Coroico is a small village located in the subtropical jungle, 3 hours north of La Paz. We went there for 3 days and one day we hiked to a waterfall on Rio Negro. The hike was more strenuous than we thought, 3 hours each way and cutting through dense vegetation on the hillside. In hindsight, I feel like we paid a guide to show us the way, as we could not have found the waterfall by ourselves, nor able to find the way back alone. Also, at some point during the hike, the path was cut by a massive landslide and the guide made us cross over the landslide on a makeshift ledge that was only a few inches wide. We crossed an almost vertical wall, facing the wall (and not the precipice, which would've made anyone who hates altitudes nauseous) and trying to grab onto the dirt and rocks with our hands. On the way back, it started pouring and we all got soaked to the bone, thus the clothes hanging to dry. Luckily, I had brought an extra pair of pants and a hoodie to change into back at the cabin, but Anne only had one pair of pants, and had to put them back on still wet the next day.

We met Kat and Elizabeth from Kansas City back at the hostel in La Paz and they came to Coroico, where we all hung out together for 3 days. They were both big fans of StumbleUpon and seemed really excited when they heard that I used to work there. Meeting StumbleUpon users in the Bolivian jungle, who would've thought! We decided to take this group shot on the way back from our hike to the waterfall. We felt miserable, tired, wet, cold, Anne was also feeling sick from something she ate earlier - but we managed to put on these big smiles on our faces for this photo.

This is Anne, hiking in the rain. The rain itself wasn't actually bad at all, as it was really warm and humid. What we were afraid of were actually the lightnings. We met some backpackers earlier in La Paz who had been in the Huaraz Cordilliera Blanca mountains a week earlier and told us about a hiker who got killed being struck by lightning. Someone said he could have avoided it if he ducked under a rock or tree, but here where we were, there were no trees or rocks on sight, just grassy hillsides.

El Rio Negro was at the bottom/end of the hike. We continued the hike through the water for a little while until we reached the waterfall. You couldn't really walk on the edge of the river, since the trees and vegetation grew all the way until the water started and leaned over the water. But the river was shallow, so you could easily walk through it. I stupidly left my Teva sandals in San Francisco, since I could only bring 3 pairs of shoes on this 6 month trip and now I deeply regretted it.
At the begining of the hike.

Peasants preparing the land to plant coca. In this area, people can yield 2 crops a year from their land. Apparently, only 10 hectars are legally allowed to be grown with coca in Bolivia, but in reality there are more like 50 hectars. People in the lush jungle areas are growers, but apparently (according to what our guide told me), the cocaine labs are not located in the same area. They are at higher altitude, in the mountains where the climate is not good for growing. This way, different people in different areas get to profit from the various stages of the process.

The road from our lodge in Coroico back into the village. When it rained, the road turned into this muddy mess. Cabs wouldn't even go up there, so lodge customers had to walk up the hill 30 minutes to get home or down to the village if they needed any supplies. We really enjoyed the walk, the road was covered with a canopy of trees and flowers and we were constantly accompanied by the sound of myriads of insects and birds.

This was the view from the room we rented in Coroico for about 8 USD/night/person. A small price for us, but a small fortune in terms of Bolivian money. Anne and I came to the conclusion that running a lodge or hostel for foreigners in a poor country like Bolivia is a cash cow. They usually charge a backpacker about 10 USD/night, which is nothing for someone who earns money in USD, British pounds or Euros, but means a lot of money in Bolivian currency. That aside, the place where we stayed was amazing and totally worth the money, despite the fact that the showers were outside and only had cold, barely trickling water.

The lodge was called Sol y Luna. The owner was traveling when we stayed there, so we didn't get to meet her and chat about the history of the place, but, if I'm not mistaken, the place was owned and built up by a German lady. The entire properly was really well taken care of, with the attention to detail and sophistication of a Western eye. It was built as an eco-lodge, a retreat, a place for yoga and meditation. It had a lot of gardens, plans, herbs and flowers. Something you'd see in Northern California, Santa Cruz, Big Sur, Marin County. A very zen and hippie place, to nurture your soul and mind, away from civilization. It really felt like walking though the garden of Eden, at least according to my imagination.

One of the two pools at our lodge with chaise longs overlooking the mountains. When it rained, you couldn't see anything, just a white opaque wall of fog. We didn't swim in the pool at all, mostly because it was overcast and rainy the entire time we stayed there, but also because the pool was full of green water, which I presume was all rain water. It didn't look very inviting, nor clean. Under normal circumstances, I'd swim in anything, but given that we're on a 6 month trip, we didn't want to risk getting any weird skin rashes or yeast infections. It may sound like we're too cautions and not fun, but sometimes it's better to be safe than sorry.

On the property at Sol y Luna. The place had all sorts of cute things, hammocks hanging all over the place in the forest, where you could chill with a book or take a nap, benches, many places where you could light a fire, a hot tub, a place to do yoga, a swing, and so forth.

The photo above is actually a photo of a photo. I saw it on the wall at Sol y Luna, among other photos of times gone, of previous places who stayed at this lodge. I can't quite tell how old this photo is, whether it's contemporary or from some long gone hippie days. But considering that a lot of people we've met on our trip so far look and dress like hippies, it's quite possible and believable that the scene above took place not that long ago.

Alright, so this is the Death Road, considered the most dangerous road in the world. If you don't know what it is, I recommend a Google image search for "death road Bolivia." We biked down this thing. It was wild and scary, but doable. I didn't make it to the finish line, but I'll tell you that story later on. This road links La Paz to Coroico. It's a gravel road, about 4 meters wide, going for about 64km, all downhill, and linking La Paz to Coroico, via Yolosa. The road was built during the 30s by war prisoners from Paraguay. Our guide told us they built the whole road by hand, with no equipment. When the road was finished, the prisoners were shot on the side of the road and pushed into the precipice, which in some places is of about 600 to 800 meters deep. Maybe this is why the road has a bad omen and has caused so many deaths. As we cycled down, we saw a lot of crosses on the side of the road, marking places where people died.

From Wikipedia: "Because of the extreme dropoffs of at least 600 meters (1,830 feet), single-lane width – most of the road no wider than 3.2 metres (10 ft) and lack of guard rails, the road is extremely dangerous. Further still, rain, fog and dust can reduce visibility. In many places the road surface is muddy, and can loosen rocks from the road. One of the local road rules specifies that the downhill driver never has the right of way and must move to the outer edge of the road. This forces fast vehicles to stop so that passing can be negotiated safely. Also, vehicles drive on the left, as opposed to the right like the rest of Bolivia. This gives a left hand drive vehicle's driver a better view over his outside wheel, making passing safer."

That's me at the beginning of the downhill ride down El Camino del Muerte. That's 64km of downhill biking. It reminded me a lot of the "no engine race" we do at San Francisco moped rallies, where we ride the Mt Tam to Bolinas road with no engines on. Imagine doing that for 4 hours straight. Sadly, I didn't finish the ride because I fell. I am not very good at riding bikes in general, as I rarely ever ride in San Francisco. This one was especially hard because the bike was vibrating pretty bad on the gravel road. Adding to that was the fact that you were going downhill and catching speed pretty fast. The hydraulic brakes were excellent, so at one point when I caught some speed, I involuntarily slammed on the front brake, locked up the front wheel and flew over the handlebars. As you can see, the protective gear looks sturdy and nothing happened. I got up and kept on riding. More cautiously than before and a bit more stressed out.

Now I was focusing on not making the same mistake again, but when you think of something too much, that's when it happens. An hour later I fell again and got some road rash on both palms of my hands. The skin peeled off and was bleeding, much too painful to continue holding the grips of a vibrating bike going downhill. With much sadness I gave up, and climbed into the chase van. I made it 2/3 of the way, Anne finished the ride. The next day, we were both beaten down and sore, like we were put through hell. Would I do it again? Hell, no! Would I recommend it? Absolutely yes! If you're into cycling, biking, dirt biking, outdoors, adventure, nature, then you know you want to do this. The views are breathtaking, the adrenaline is high, the feeling of accomplishment is great.

View from La Cumbre Pass, leaving La Paz. This is where we started the downhill ride. From Wikipedia: upon leaving La Paz, the road first ascends to around 4,650 metres (15,260 ft) at La Cumbre Pass, before descending to 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) at the town of Coroico, transiting quickly from cool Altiplano terrain to rainforest as it winds through very steep hillsides and atop cliffs.

Calle de la Brujas (Witches Market) in La Paz. This place sounded awesome, so we went to check it out, but it was quite disappointing. We were expecting magic potions, traditional remedies, original artifacts, occult objects. The shops were full of touristy crap made in a factory. A few places had some alternative medication and potions made out of coca leaves, but for the most part, they were a total letdown. The hallmark of most of these places were the llama fetuses that came in different sizes and positions, depending on how old they were when they got aborted by their llama mamas. Now, I am skeptical whether the fetuses were a result of natural abortions, or if the poor animals were abused to cause abortions, just so you can sell this weird souvenir to tourists. Apparently, the locals used to bury the fetus in the ground in front of a house during the construction phase, to bear good luck and fortune.

Here's a little self-portrait with my new Bolivian scarf / sun shield. The sun in Copacabana was so scorching hot, that it can cause serious sun stroke and it even caused the scalp of Anne's head to burn and peel. We went sun-shield shopping, but since we can't really afford to add any extra volume to our backpacks, and real sun hats are such space hoggers, we settled on small things. Anne got a teeny tiny hat made of soft alpaca wool that makes her look like Audrey Hepburn, while I got a scarf, which I can wear around my head, in loyal gypsy style.

In La Paz.

My little outdoors office on our own private patio in Copacabana, overlooking lake Titicaca. Nuff said.

La Paz.

Anne's abode at our awesomely beautiful round lodging in Copacabana. We stayed at this place called Las Olas (the waves), a complex of unique buildings owned by a German guy, former art teacher, who left the civilized world to build his dream in Bolivia on the shore of lake Titicaca. Our hut was called La Tortuga, built in the shape of a dome, had 2 floors, hammocks hanging inside, a round bed overlooking the lake, and its own little patio with even more hammocks and places to hang out. We got this whole place to ourselves for about 15 USD/night/person, with a discount from the owner, because he was painting the place on the outside and didn't want us to feel bothered.

Waking up to this view 3 days in a row, going to bed to amazing sunsets every night. I will miss Las Olas.

Leaving La Paz.

Copacabana was a very chill place. A bit deserted, as it was outside of tourist season when we got there, yet even more charming and mellow. It reminded me a lot of Vama Veche, how it used to be. A lot of hippie/raggae themed bars and hangout spots along the shore. Ironically, the Bolivian flag colors (red, yellow and green) work very well together with the whole rasta/Bob Marley theme.

Hangout spot in Copacabana.

La Paz street. Gives a new meaning to the expression "bustling with life."

Snapshot taken from the bus on the road from Copacabana to La Paz. Bolivia is considered to be the poorest country in South America. We didn't really know what to expect or imagine, but we've seen some dire poverty in Peru. Upon seeing the human landscape in rural Bolivia, Peru looked rich. I was traveling on the "tourist bus" (at 3.5 USD a ticket for a 3 hour ride, this bus was 2 dollars more expensive than the bus the locals take), I felt privileged and uneasy at the same time at the thought of waltzing in and out of these people's country, enjoying the comfort offered by the spending power of my hard currency. Looking through the window of my high bus, snapping photos of them. There was something deeply heart-wrenching about the landscape perusing before my eyes. Bolivia is really rich in natural resources, yet it is one of the poorest countries in the world. My entire stay in Bolivia I could not help but think a lot of Che Guevara, of his motorcycle trip, the poverty he encountered on his way and how it affected his mindset. I wonder how much the social condition of these people has changed since his trip.

My auto photo uploader has appropriately selected this Copacabana sunset as the closing image for my rant on Bolivia. This was our last night in Copacabana, so I cooked some pasta and we ate it outside of our cabin, while watching the sunset. A million dollar view, we were really happy and very much in touch with nature. During our trip so far, we've been fortunate to have a lot of moments of peace and quiet, sitting some place in front of a breathtaking landscape like this one and thinking how wonderful our earth is. I remember my conversation with Anne while we were sitting at this exact place. I told her that I am not religious, but that the most spiritual moments of my life have been encounters with nature in all its loftiness and glory. It also happens that the main deity in the old religion of the locals here (before the Spaniards came and forced everyone to convert to Catholicism or be killed) is called Pachamama (mother earth). Seeing how beautiful and lofty the nature is around these parts of the world, it totally makes sense.